Kittitas ‘Cannabis’ County: Regulations weigh heavy on voter minds as election race closes

Chace Davy, Assistant News Editor

As the Kittitas County Commissioner election draws near, candidates Obie O’Brien and Steve Verhey have been campaigning to win the votes that may sway the county one way or the other.

One of the most controversial topics in the county today is the growth of cannabis for recreational use.

When Initiative 502 was on the ballot in Washington in 2012, the voters of Kittitas county voted against it by a margin of less than 500 votes. However, now that cannabis is legalized and the first shop in Ellensburg, the Ellensburg Apothecary, is now open for business, the debate has shifted from legalizing the product to focusing on where it is grown in Kittitas Valley.

Steve Verhey held a meeting on Oct. 22 to hear what residents had to say about regulations.
Derrick Clarit
Steve Verhey held a meeting on Oct. 22 to hear what residents had to say about regulations.

Cannabis legalization “does have a lot of emotion, and I understand that,” O’Brien said.

A proposed plan to build a 60,000- square-foot industrial facility, comparable to many of the hay facilities in the county, in the Upper Badger Pocket area, has helped fuel these emotions.

After the conceptual drawing of the facility was made public, residents in Upper Badger Pocket created a group to try to prevent the facility from being constructed.

“In the county agenda session…the people showed up to protest and tell us what they thought of this at about eight or nine meetings in a row,” O’Brien said.

Many residents living near where cannabis is planned to grow or is currently being grown are concerned about an increase in crime in the area. Most of the facilities are approximately 45 minutes outside of a police response.

“The controversy comes with how…the county deal[s] with the state law that says this is now a legal product under legal license,” O’Brien said.

“Whatever the law is…I would have to have a local ordinance that backs that up and enforces it.”

Currently, the county classifies cannabis as an agricultural product, and the Liquor Control Board requires any cannabis-growing facility to maintain an eight-foot fence around the premises.

“If you want a candidate who will remove marijuana from the county, you won’t find that in either of us,” Verhey said.

Projected state revenues from recreational pot sales over the next four years is $190 million.

“Most people that I have talked to understand why I-502 passed,” Verhey said. “The way marijuana laws [in the past] have been enforced has destroyed countless lives…Even the people that voted against it, most of them understand that.”

The state legislature is also able to modify the I-502 law for the first time this year because the two-year hold on making changes has ended.

If the legislature decides to make any changes to the way the laws are enforced, it could impact growers and manufacturers across the state.

“I have heard from the marijuana industry that the state will raise the cap that is currently 2 million square feet of plant canopy possibly to 10 million square feet,” O’Brien said.

The state could also possibly modify where profits from recreational cannabis sales go.

“Given that the school system is a $4 billion hole, [the state Legislature] may take all of the extra revenue…and say it all has to go in to education,” O’Brien said.

A lot of the concerns regarding recreational cannabis in Kittitas County have to do with how easily it can be accessed by children.

According to the Denver Post, Colorado has seen a spike in children ages 3 to 7 being admitted to hospitals due to accidentally ingesting cannabis products, usually in the form of edibles.

As of May 2014, nine children had been admitted to Children’s Hospital Colorado for accidental ingestion, compared to eight in all of 2013.

Colorado signed a bill into law in May that aimed to help prevent children from accidentally ingesting cannabis by requiring that all cannabis-related edibles be easily identifiable, even when they are out of the package. The rules surrounding the law are still in development.

Cannabis isn’t the only issue currently under debate in Kittitas County.

Along with where cannabis is grown, where these farms, as well as the rest of the farms in the county, get their water has been an issue that O’Brien is set on tackling.

Verhey believes that keeping jobs in the county, especially for recent graduates, is one of the more pressing issues that needs to be addressed.

“It’s the kind of job where, unfortunately, it’s inevitable that you annoy at least a few people all the time, and you annoy a lot of people some of the time,” Verhey said. “That just comes with the territory.”