What happens in the courthouse...

Unless explicitly noted otherwise, this blog represents my own opinions, not those of any organization (like the Kittitas County Democratic Party) that I might be involved with.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

How did the county mess up marijuana so badly?

To paraphrase Boss Godfrey in Cool Hand Luke, the problem is a failure to communicate. The county's failure to communicate is what caused the storm of criticism from a small group of people who felt blindsided by the new regulations on marijuana businesses.

The communication problem isn't limited to the marijuana issue, of course. It is unusually -- and, in this day and age, inexplicably -- difficult to get information about the workings of county government.

It is hard to imagine why the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) hasn't caught up with the Cle Elum City Council, the Cle Elum-Roslyn School Board, the Ellensburg City Council and the Ellensburg School Board when it comes to keeping citizens in the loop. Meetings of all of those organizations have been recorded and broadcast via cable for years.

Making the whole situation even harder to understand is the fact that Commissioner Obie O'Brien previously served on the Ellensburg City Council, and during that time his day job involved technical support for distance learning at CWU. A 2007 Daily Record story about community access TV and televised meetings noted that then-Mayor O'Brien "became involved with community access TV long before he became mayor." If anyone knows the how and why of making video of meetings available, it should be Mr. O'Brien.

So, after 4 years of Commissioner O'Brien, why isn't video of all BOCC meetings televised or available on the Internet? Possibly, in the words of Mayor O'Brien, because "[W]hen there is that close a scrutiny, things can change."

Why the freak-out about marijuana businesses in Kittitas county?

Marijuana processing workers in Colorado.
The freak-out about marijuana businesses in Kittitas county is an interesting thing. I'll write about the main cause of the situation soon, but first, a look at some secondary causes.

To try to understand how we got here, it is useful to compare Kittitas county with Grant county, just across the Columbia River from us. While Initiative 502 (which made recreational marijuana legal when it was passed by a state-wide vote of 55.7%) failed narrowly in Kittitas county with 51.58% no votes, it was decisively defeated in Grant county, with 55.41% no votes.

In spite of the very strong no vote, the Grant county Planning Department issued a 5-page policy on marijuana on December 13, 2013. The Department recommended that marijuana production be allowed on any land that could be used to grow other crops.

Kittitas County, on the other hand, took until May 2014 to issue a 48-page policy, including changes to the County Code. The county's response to Initative 502 was led by Commissioner O'Brien.

What was the public reaction? In Grant county, there has been little, if any, public reaction -- and no public outcry -- about marijuana production.1 In Kittitas county there has been considerable outcry, so much so that the Kittitas county Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) caved and revised the regulations, adding to the hoops marijuana entrepreneurs must jump through.2 This was a blow to the budding Kittitas county marijuana industry, which faces competition from nearly every other county in the state.

Why the difference in reaction? Probably at least the following factors played a role:
  1. Nearly all of the people who live outside of towns in Grant county are involved in agriculture in some way -- a positive result of Grant county's compliance with the Growth Management Act.3
  2. People who live outside towns in Grant county are reluctant to tell their neighbors what they can or cannot do with their land.
  3. A great diversity of crops is produced in Grant county, literally from asparagus to watermelon (and possibly zucchini). In addition, corn fields have traditionally been used for small but illicit growing operations, sometimes by the children of farmers (or by now-grown farmers' younger selves).4
  4. Grant County marijuana regulations were timely, clear, and easy to understand.
One concern in Kittitas county is the export hay market, but it is important to realize that there is significant export hay production in Grant county, too, including production by well-known Kittitas county hay companies.

1I skimmed through all 258 hits from the linked search of the Columbia Basin Herald website and didn't see a single article indicating concern about the new marijuana regulations.
2The same search of the Ellensburg Daily Record's website (for the word "marijuana") yielded over 1500 hits, and several articles about concern over the new regulations appeared in the top 20 hits.
3 Kittitas county remains out of compliance with the GMA until the Hearings Board rules on the county's efforts to come into compliance. A ruling is expected soon, and it is expected the county will be declared in compliance. Finally.
4I grew up on a farm in Grant county, and I may know some of these people.

Analysis of claims that drive fear of marijuana businesses

Marijuana license applications in Washington.
Green, production; blue, processing; red, retail.
Click for interactive version.1
Since my earlier posts on marijuana, I have spent several weeks doing my own research into the marijuana industry in Kittitas county. I have toured a not-yet-licensed grow facility, talked with marijuana entrepreneurs, read regulations, done a fair amount of Internet research, made maps, talked with a leader in the Kittitas county hay industry, and talked with non-farmers who are concerned about marijuana in the county. While I still do not like indoor grow operations, because of their high carbon footprint, I have no trouble thinking of the marijuana business as just that: a business like any other. As an entrepreneur myself, I tend to sympathize with Kittitas county's marijuana entrepreneurs, who have been dealt a very bad hand by the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC).

Businesses need stability, and the BOCC has made the business environment very unstable.

An August 7, 2014 letter to the Daily Record offers a fairly complete list of concerns that have been expressed about marijuana businesses and calls for the BOCC to reverse itself and ban marijuana production. Here are some of my thoughts about some of the concerns.

Item: Prospective marijuana business people are mostly "individuals and members of corporations not residing in this location."
Comment: Kittitas county needs more entrepreneurs, and marijuana business people are classic entrepreneurs. There are homegrown (no pun!) marijuana entrepreneurs, too, and all are investing money in their businesses. Some of these entrepreneurs are starting their second or third businesses, using money they made in earlier ventures. This is exactly the kind of activity, and exactly the kind of business people, that we'd like to encourage in our county, if we could get past negative attitudes about the products.
Item: Other counties have decided not to allow various types of marijuana businesses, we should do the same.
Comment: many more counties have decided to allow marijuana businesses than have decided to forbid marijuana businesses, but an early decision not to allow some or all types of marijuana businesses was certainly an option in Kittitas county. The BOCC obviously didn't do a very good job of communicating about their decision, but they did decide to allow marijuana businesses in the county. Once they made that decision, they had a responsibility -- to the business owners and to their investors -- to move forward with it as smoothly as possible. The BOCC has unfortunately failed to do this, changing the rules after protest from citizens who felt blindsided by the original rules. This is very bad for business, and the most troubling aspect of the whole mess.
Item: [it is said that] there will be security lights and other unsightly side effects at marijuana businesses.
Comment: there will be no unusual visible lighting at marijuana business locations. All lighting will be infra-red, to allow security cameras to see in the dark. Fencing is required, but the fences I have seen are not unsightly.
Item: marijuana could contaminate export hay or otherwise affect the hay industry.
Comment: the Kittitas County Weed Board says marijuana does not have the potential to become a weed problem. In fact, the kind of marijuana sold nowadays does not produce seeds, and must be propagated by rooting cuttings. Farmers here are aware of this.
Item: crime, property values.
Comment: we are all aware of the crime associated with the illegal marijuana industry, and one of the goals of a legal marijuana industry is the reduction of crime. There is evidence this goal is being realized in Colorado, which is several months ahead of us in developing the legal industry. Because marijuana operations are deliberately low-key, it seems unlikely that there will actually be a property value effect, but this remains to be seen.
Item: a large grow facility "could yield a marijuana crop worth $22.50 million-$28 million per year," leading to security concerns.
Comment: that much revenue would ordinarily be seen as a very good thing, since this money would be made in Kittitas county, but it is an annual number. The amount of money or product on site at any time would be far smaller. Marijuana entrepreneurs understand better than anyone the security concerns, and will take steps to minimize risks. Fearful neighbors may worry, but there is no real reason to expect trouble offsite, and the risk of trouble onsite is not large.
Item: what about water and power?
Comment: these are potential problems for people in the business, not the rest of us. They are examples of why this business is -- and reminders of why any business can be -- risky. What business owners do not need is added risk because of a BOCC that can't make up its mind because one member keeps changing his mind. Meanwhile, worrying about things that are none of our concern only increases fear and negative attitudes.
Item: marijuana will make Kittitas county seem less family-friendly.
Comment: marijuana businesses are planned or already operating in every corner of our state, there are at least three breweries and a distillery operating in our county, and there may be more bars than churches in Ellensburg. Again, this concern is something that a worried person might imagine but which seems unlikely to actually come to pass. Whether it does come to pass is under our control regardless of what happens with marijuana.
Most of these concerns grow more out of upset caused by the poor communication on the part of BOCC than out of real problems. The BOCC has thoroughly messed up the situation.

1I don't know why, in the interactive version, some operations map to remote states; their addresses are correct in the data file. Not all marijuana operations are shown on the map, again for unknown reasons having to do with the original dataset.