Slog originally broke this story at 12:04 p.m. It has been updated and moved up the blog stream.
The Washington State Liquor Control Board will announce later today that it is scrapping a rule about how the agency will measure distances between legal pot shops and schools to meet demands from the US Department of Justice, sources say.
Initiative 502 requires a 1,000-foot buffer between such places, and in the final pot rules announced last week, the agency had decided to measure that distance by "common path of travel" rather than "as the crow flies." The federal government is up in arms about this legal interpretation, and thinks it should be more difficult to site cannabis retailers in Seattle.
I asked WSLCB and DOJ yesterday about the upcoming announcement, and both remained mum. Seattle DOJ spokeswoman Emily Langlie said it would take the department some time to get back to me. Liquor board spokesman Brian Smith responded to me this morning with news of an impromptu press conference this afternoon at 2 p.m.
"All I can say is that's what it's about," said Smith when asked specifically if the news conference is about the federal government's demand that the agency scrap its 1,000-foot rule interpretation.
I inquired further on the matter, saying it seemed the feds would strongly argue that 1,000 feet is 1,000 feet—period—and that there is no allowance for creative measurement. "Well, you seem to have a pretty good handle on things," Smith responded, before telling me I could ask further questions of agency director Rick Garza on the 2 p.m. conference call.
News of the liquor board's 1,000-foot rule interpretation was celebrated by legal cannabis advocates who feared that the zoning restrictions in I-502 are so severe, cities like Seattle will have almost no place for legal pot shops. Last week I called it the best news by far in the new cannabis rules.
Which makes today's upcoming announcement the worst news by far for Washington cannabis lovers this week.
UPDATE 2:10 PM: Liquor board head Rick Garza confirms the news that the federal government has compelled the agency to issue an emergency change to the proposed pot rules. "We want to make sure we're not in conflict with federal law and that our licensees are not," says Garza.
The feds demanded that the state measure the distance between pot shops and schools using a straight-line measurement, and not the "common path of travel" rule the board uses to measure liquor establishments. "They made it clear that the measurement we are using is not their measurement, and they will enforce their measurement."
Garza said the feds have not specifically said they will raid legal pot shops within 1,000 feet of schools, but the threat was obvious. He says potential licensees, many of whom have started finding potential pot properties based on the "common path of travel" measurement, need to be aware of the change. "We want to make sure they're aware the board plans on using a measurement that aligns with the federal government."
Garza also said the straight-line rule will make it much easier to measure pot shop buffers for the liquor board and licensees, though it will certainly exclude many more properties. The board will vote on the emergency rule at its October 16 meeting, and it will take effect on November 16, one day before the liquor board starts taking applications for legal pot businesses.
UPDATE 3:10 PM: I received the following response from Department of Justice spokeswoman Emily Langlie:
The Attorney General made clear to Governor Inslee that the Justice Department will continue to enforce the Controlled Substances Act with a sharp focus on federal enforcement priorities. The Department emphasized that the decision not to seek preemption was premised on the state establishing a strong regulatory and enforcement framework that would protect the key interests. Those priorities include preventing the promotion and sale of drugs to minors, violence and the use of firearms, and the trafficking of marijuana across state or international lines. We will continue our work against organized criminal organizations and their underground economy, and against those who would use drug proceeds to fund other criminal activity.
During our meeting this week, the two U.S. Attorneys for Washington reiterated to state leaders the federal priorities that guide our enforcement efforts across the state. It is in the public’s interest to avoid potential and unnecessary conflicts between the state’s approach and continuing federal enforcement. A key focus is the protection of children. Prior marijuana enforcement in both Eastern and Western Washington has focused on keeping dispensaries out of school zones, and that work will continue. It has been an important bright line and a well-established one. It is to protect children and will not be compromised for convenience.
Federal law is clear that 1,000 feet from prohibited areas—including schools and playgrounds—is measured using a straight line. The Liquor Control Board made the determination to avoid an obvious conflict between the proposed rules and federal law