Benton County could push more cannabis growers indoors as it struggles to contain the unanticipated fallout from legal marijuana, including harvest-related odors.
After some Finley residents complained about cannabis harvest odors last summer, the county passed a six-month moratorium against new producers and processors. The moratorium didn’t affect existing legal operators.
The moratorium expires May 14, meaning the county faces a fresh decision: Drop it, renew it or take steps to make its anti-cannabis position permanent.
At its regular business session this week, the three elected leaders indicated they want a version of the latter, one that would in time drive all growers to move into greenhouses with air filtration systems.
Another thorny challenge — the moratorium does not affect marijuana retail businesses.
In another 2017 move, Benton County banned additional outlets after learning a shop would open next to West Richland on Arena Road, much to the dismay of West Richland and its immediate neighbors.
Nirvana Cannabis has not opened and there has been no outwardly visible progress on the building renovation.
Opponents want county officials to take legal action against the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board, which approved the store.
The county’s elected commissioners focused on the Finley moratorium this week, even as the 2018 Legislature considers bills that would weaken the ability of local cities and counties to regulate the industry.
Legal cannabis pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars to state coffers each year.
Commissioners said they’re searching for a solution to the odor problem, including the push to drive production indoors.
Commissioner Jim Beaver said he’d prefer no cannabis, but would support indoor operations.
He agreed with Shon Small and Jerome Delvin in that he wants to work with the Benton Clean Air Agency and sheriff’s office to manage odor and other nuisance issues.
Not everyone agrees Finley has an odor problem — or that the county’s attempts to regulate it are helpful.
The retail ban and production moratorium hurt what could be a lucrative industry for Finley, said Gene Mercer, a long-time resident, farmer and cannabis entrepreneur.
Most of Finley’s recreational cannabis growers are already indoors, Mercer said.
Mercer and his son, Matthew, purchased former grazing land near Agrium’s Finley plant for future cannabis production.
They’ve leased a portion of it for three greenhouse cannabis operations, all downwind from the nearest homes that are a quarter-mile away.
The quarter-mile between the greenhouses and nearby residences is a farm circle.
The greenhouses are in varying stages of development.
When operational, they will house grow operations for the recreational cannabis industry.
In the long run, Mercer is betting on the federal government legalizing cannabis in the future.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has pushed for more cannabis regulation, but Mercer is convinced that Sessions’ view not the government’s long-term posture.
In the short term, local legislation forced him to suspend plans to create a retail mall on Highway 397, across the highway from Green2Go’s retail building.
Cannabis, he said, is the next dot-com industry and Finley stands to benefit from the influx of investment dollars and jobs related to production and processing.
He said the odor complaints were legitimate, but the problem was temporary and related to the unusual confluence of an inversion weather pattern, wind and other factors that sent smells from a medicinal grow operation wafting over the Finley school complex during the 2017 harvest.
Neighbors said the smell was pervasive and disrupted daily life.
Lance Hahn, Finley’s school superintendent, confirmed the smell affected the school.
One resident who spoke at the county meeting said the 2018 growing season will yield a 140,000-square-foot cannabis canopy in Finley.
That person called on the county to develop a five-year plan to rid the community of cannabis.
Washington voters legalized recreational cannabis when Initiative 502 passed in 2012.
While it passed statewide, Mid-Columbia voters opposed it by a wide margin.
The local opposition prompted the cities of Kennewick, Pasco, Richland and West Richland, and Franklin County to pass early bans.
That left unincorporated Benton County as one of the few places in the region where cannabis businesses could operate legally and concentrated retailers and producers in relatively small areas.
Cannabis sales generated more than $300 million in excise taxes in Washington in the 12 months through last October.
Local jurisdictions do not share in the bounty.
Benton County is expected to receive about $77,000 this year, according to MRSC, a municipal research service.