As a recreational marijuana business attorney, one of the most common questions that I get asked is whether a state issued recreational marijuana license trumps local zoning/building regulations. The short answer is – no. Issuance of a state recreational marijuana license does not protect the licensee from changes in local zoning ordinances and/or moratoria.
I have discussed the need to comply with local building code requirements and zoning ordinances here and here. One of the unfortunate realities of Washington’s recreational marijuana law is that local jurisdictions are allowed to impose very restrictive zoning requirements and/or outright bans on marijuana businesses. Washington courts have thus far upheld the rights of cities and counties to restrict where marijuana business may locate as well as to prohibit them.
There have been a number instances where a business has obtained a recreational marijuana license from the State Liquor Control Board only to be shut down by a local jurisdiction enacting a subsequent moratorium. If the licensee has not submitted a building permit prior to the moratorium then they most likely do not have any protection from the local jurisdiction enforcing its moratorium against them.
The best way to protect against changes in zoning laws and moratoria is to file a complete building application. The filing of a complete building application grandfathers the applicant to the laws existing at the time of building application filing. Thus, if an applicant or licensee files a complete building permit prior to a local jurisdiction enacting a moratorium, then the licensee is not subject to the moratorium and may proceed to operate its marijuana business.
I sympathize with those licensees who are having to either relocate or halt operations due to actions by local jurisdictions. The ability of cities and counties to ban marijuana businesses is a very large problem and hinders the overall success of the legalized marijuana market. Until there is legislative action on this issue, however, licensees need to fully understand the local zoning and building requirements of the city or county in which they intend to locate.
For more information on the regulation of marijuana businesses in Washington State, please contact Heather Wolf.