Obstructive and facilitative County environments with respect to I-502 permitting in Washington State


by Dr. Jim MacRae*, CASP Research Associate and Dr. Dominic Corva, CASP Executive Director

Maps by Steve Hyde and Steven Wan

*This work evolved from work done by Dr. MacRae as public input responding to Snohomish County’s moratorium decision.  Our choice of Snohomish County to serve as the our detailed case study was influenced by this fact.

The recent wave of moratorium fever in Washington State, exemplified by recent events in Snohomish and other Counties and Cities (see here and here), poses unforeseen challenges for the rollout of legal cannabis. Local resistance does not necessarily foreclose legal cannabis business in general, but on where and what kind of legal cannabis businesses are allowed to operate within the State.  Instead of a State-level “laboratory of democracy,” what is developing is a patchwork of more- and less-friendly policy environments shaped by localized political and economic interests. This is a major challenge to the possibility of State-level legalization experiments. More research is needed to define and explain these challenges in order to reconcile local and State policies.

The purpose of this analysis is to map out County-level differences in receptiveness to I-502 production, processing and retail businesses based on data sourced from publicly available information supplied by the Washington State Liquor Control Board; and research conducted by the WSLCB initial consulting group BOTEC in 2013. These differences appear as a spectrum on which we have identified “facilitative” County environments on one end, and “obstructive” County environments on the other.

While obstructive environments are not surprising in counties that voted against I-502, the development of obstructive environments in counties that voted for I-502 make clear that State level legalization creates a new and dynamic policy landscape that is continuous with, rather than an end to, prohibition as public policy.

We begin by mapping that landscape as a county-level state overview.  Counties were ranked on a scale of “facilitative” to “obstructive” based on WSLCB Applicant data from 10/21/2014, color-coded and mapped.  Counties were also categorized by their relative voter approval rate of I-502 in 2012.  Then we focus these metrics down to Snohomish County to situate their recent “emergency moratorium” in relationship with their rank of obstructiveness.  We conclude by discussing the relationship between minority voter mobilization and county-level obstructive environments, and recommend further geographical research along these lines in order to clarify the landscape of I-502 implementation going forward for policymakers and the public.

Washington State Overview

Using LCB license approval data, we ranked each County on the percentages of its allocated retail licenses, producer license applications, and processor license applications that had been approved through Oct 21.  For each type of license, the highest percent approval rate was ranked as “1”, and the lowest was ranked “36”.  The three rankings for each County were then averaged, yielding a single overall ranking metric (ranging in value from 1 – 36), with lower numbers corresponding to Counties with relatively HIGHER rates of license approval. These are mapped below as Figure 1.

figure 1

Figure 1: Facilitative and Obstructive County I-502 Environments in Washington State with “Average License Approval Ranking”

figure 1 table

Table 1 for Figure 1 MAP

County facilitation or obstruction of I-502 business permitting does not necessarily correspond with voter support for I-502 and, hence, recorded electoral support for legal cannabis as a State policy, due to political and economic variables that have developed since its approval.  These include the institution and removal of moratoria and locational and/or permitting restrictions imposed locally that go above and beyond those required by the State.

What we are interested in here is not simply the identification of obstructive and facilitative County environments, but the identification of cases where such environments do not match  with recorded voter support or opposition to  I-502. In Counties where the degree of facilitation or obstruction of I-502 implementation does not correspond with recorded voter positions for or against I-502,  we take this to be an indicator of a lack of representative local Government — or at least a deficit of local democracy.

The percent of voters in each County voting for the establishment of a legal cannabis market in Washington State in 2013 was categorized into differing degrees of PRO and CON, and mapped below in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Percentage of Voter Approval for I-502 by County

Twenty-four Washington Counties held a clear PRO (>53% for) or CON (>53% against) voter position on I-502.  In the breakdown of these Counties below, those displaying patterns suggestive of non-representative local government have been bold-faced.

Of the 9 clearly CON I-502  Counties, 5 have displayed license approval rates that suggest the expected obstructive environments (Adams, Franklin, Lewis, Walla Walla, and Yakima), while 4 appear to have unexpected facilitative environments (Benton, Cowlitz, Grant, and Stevens).

Of the 15 clearly PRO I-502 Counties, 13 have displayed license approval rates that suggest unexpected obstructive environments (Clallam, Grays Harbor, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Mason, Pacific, Pierce, Skagit, Skamania, Snohomish, and Thurston), while 2 appear to have the expected facilitative environments (San Juan, Whatcom).

With the Washington State midterm election underway, it may be prudent for the voters of these Counties to question their local candidates as to why the results of local I-502 implementation are inconsistent with the message they sent in their vote for (or against)  I-502. Such a disconnect is clear in our case study, Snohomish County.

Snohomish County Case Study

After almost 11 months of explicitly allowing I-502 businesses in defined zones, earlier this month, the Snohomish County Council passed Emergency Ordinance 14-086, a six month moratorium prohibiting new producer or processor businesses from opening in the R-5 zone and prohibiting I-502 retail businesses in the Clearview CRC zone.  R-5 in Snohomish County is RURAL-5 and generally allows most types of commercial activity in an effort to allow people to “live off of their land”. Cottage industry, especially associated with agricultural activity, is generally permitted in R-5 zoned property, and the stated intent of this zone is “to maintain rural character in areas that lack urban services”.  The action was catalyzed by the organizing efforts of local citizens spearheaded by an anti-retail group called No Operational Pot Enterprises (NOPE). NOPE represents a minority interest relative to the County’s substantial pro-502 vote, but their initiative took place in the context of an already obstructive County permitting environment.

Using LCB license approval data, and ranking each County on the percentages of its allocated retail licenses, producer license applications, and processor license applications that had been approved through Oct 21, Snohomish County ranked 21st of 36 Counties in the percentage of I-502 processor licenses granted (at 7.0%), 23rd in the percentage of I-502 processor licenses granted (at 8.9%), and 22nd in the percentage of I-502 retail licenses granted (at 11.4%).

As an example of apparently obstructive and non-representational local Government, Snohomish County had a majority of its voters vote for I-502 (54.6%, ranking as the 11th highest PRO I-502 County) yet appears to have an environment that is obstructing the implementation of I-502 licensing (ranking 23rd in relative I-502 license approval rates out of the 36 Counties analyzed).  In spite of this low license approval rate, the Snohomish County Council recently passed the emergency moratorium further restricting the categories of zoning available to I-502 businesses.

The following graph denotes the percentage of the State represented by Snohomish County on a number of variables relevant to not only marijuana, but also to alcohol. We do this to point out that Snohomish County’s obstructionist environment seems to cover more than just one class of intoxicants.

Figure 3

Figure 3 Snohomish Indicators

Data in Figure 3 is sourced from the following links:



While Snohomish County comprises 10.6% of the population of WA State (and 11.2% of “Estimated Potential Marijuana Users”), it was relatively under-served by State-run Liquor Stores in 2012 (having only 7.5% of them), and continues to be relatively under-served by both current off-premises liquor licenses (at 9.2%) and by Medical Marijuana Access Points (at 7.3%).  For whatever reason, Snohomish County residents are being denied their “fair share” of alcohol and Medical Marijuana access points.

The 10.5% allocation of the State’s I-502 retail stores to Snohomish County is in line with the County’s population (and estimated potential marijuana-using population), suggesting that the State has done a good job of allocating I-502 Retail stores in a way that should provide equal access to such establishments across the State.  However, the fact that Snohomish County has only 6.2% of the licensed Retail I-502 retail stores implies that the rate of successful licensure has been lower in Snohomish County than in the rest of the State.   In spite of these facts, the Snohomish County Council declared an acute emergency, in part because of their perception that their County was being “flooded by applicants”.

The fact that only 8.9% of producer and processor applications in the State fall within Snohomish County suggests that its population stands to be relatively under-served if I-502 applicants within the County were to be granted licenses at a rate consistent with the rest of the State.  However, the fact that only 6.6% of the licensed Producer applications and 7.4% of the licensed Processor applications in the State fall within Snohomish County is again reflective of the relative difficulties of reaching a successful licensure within Snohomish County.

In spite of the apparently obstructive environment existing in Snohomish County, 12.3% of the State’s total I-502 Sales (from producers, processors, and retailers) through September have been generated in this County.  This suggests a pent-up demand within the County that is not being served well by an obstructive local environment.  It also suggests that the few I-502 retail stores that have been able to open in Snohomish County are generating approximately twice the per-store revenue of those in the rest of the State, and are therefore unintended beneficiaries of the moratorium.

The obstructive environment in Snohomish County has benefitted two groups:  those who would have the implementation of I-502 obstructed, and those who are currently producing, processing, and retailing under I-502 within Snohomish County.  For potential beneficiaries of I-502 such as consumers hoping to gain from an available legal, regulated supply of cannabis and applicants that have invested capital in Snohomish County facilities that are now disallowed, the costs of such non-representative Government can be huge.


This analysis should help readers understand that the policy landscape of I-502 is both uneven and dynamic/unstable for County-level reasons, not simply because of State policy or WSLCB implementation. That said, the slow pace of license approval has allowed time for counter-organizing to occur with few vested stakeholders, even though many I-502 applicants are well into the process of building out and attempting to get licensed. City councils that were already inclined towards caution are being confronted by organized constituents who are fearful and angry.

Our Snohomish County case study reveals not only a counterintuitive obstructive local policy environment, but a trajectory towards MORE obstruction exemplified by an emergency moratorium that does not reflect the reality that implementation is already moving more slowly than expected, given voter support for I-502.  The obstructive moratorium is specific to rural (R-5) production and processing and I-502 retail in the Clearview Rural Commercial zone, rather than general to all I-502 business. This creates a policy landscape that is unfavorable to smaller producers that were supposed to be enfranchised by the State Tier system.

The particular local politics driving Snohomish County obstructiveness clearly reflect the mobilization of organized citizens groups that may support legal cannabis as State policy – just not in their backyards. Local citizens (voters) are, themselves, part of the obstructive environment.  It is not just City or County councils acting independently of citizen input. The struggle to smoothly implement I-502 throughout Washington State is something that any PRO-I-502 constituents should be actively supporting.  Reaching out to and educating your neighbors, the neighbors of your planned facility, and the leadership and others that will be supporting your business (fire, safety, utility, potential suppliers, etc) is increasingly important in the face of a growing (and increasingly effective) ANTI-I-502 (or at least ANTI-I-502 in my back yard) constituency.  Ignorance is the primary driver of fear, and ignorance is easily fixed with factual information and the building of trust.

In conclusion, whille I-502 legal cannabis is permissible to voters as a Statewide policy, it may not be permittable by local jurisdictions responding to organized citizens who don’t want it in their backyards. If this obstructive trend continues, it will create a patchwork of permittable landscapes across the State that will constitute an uneven geographic distribution of legal cannabis that was neither anticipated nor desired by the architects and implementers of I-502 as a Statewide policy experiment in cannabis legalization.

6 thoughts on “Obstructive and facilitative County environments with respect to I-502 permitting in Washington State

  1. Great breakdown of the various resources and studies pertaining to environmental obstructions. Hope to see more posts like this detailing various areas of the country beyond Washington.

  2. Great and useful information. Have you done these studies for any other states around the country? If so, we’d like your permission to post this and your other studies on NationalMarijuanaInfo.Org. Thank you!

    1. We are always happy to share. We are beginning to get info from Oregon and will be tracking what’s going on mostly on the West Coast, pending resources (we do this much with almost nothing).

  3. Maps are very informative. If the voters in King County passed the initiative with high approval, who is blocking the implementation of the people’s voice?

    1. It may not be “who” is blocking King County’s implementation of I-502, but “what”.
      At a minimum, a high population-density area such as King County is expected to have fewer available parcels of land that are appropriate for I-502 businesses (because things are spaced closer together, and there are lots of schools, parks, transit centers, day care operations, etc that remove 1000-foot radius circles from I-502 compliance). King County Government(s) can easily have anticipated this (indeed, Seattle seems to have), and put in place changes to zoning and/or land-use policy that would have eased the I-502 implementation constraints afforded by the geographic quirks of their turf. It does not appear that they have done a good job of doing so …. perhaps that is why stores in Snohomish county are selling so much.

    2. NIMBY citizen action groups (Not-In-My-Back-Yard). These groups have pressured local governments to institute Emergency Moratoriums that block I-502 licensed businesses within the urban jurisdictions. Perhaps this is an indication that local governments are not robustly representative. — a deficit in local democracy.

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