A study by Washington State University researchers found that cannabis dispensaries tend to be located in lower income neighborhoods. Though it did not offer definitive answers about the causes of this correlation, its results are leading some local Washington policymakers to question current zoning laws that affect where marijuana businesses can be located.
“It’s the same thing you see with NIMBYism, not in my backyard,” Spokane city council president Ben Stuckart said when contacted for his take on the study by a local publication. “NIMBYism is tough. If you tried to change it, then you’d have all those same neighborhoods coming out to speak against it.”
Stuckart was asked to comment because he has lobbied to open up prime Spokane neighborhood commercial areas to cannabis businesses. When the city council voted on zoning regulations in September, every other member voted against his suggestions to ease up on current restrictions.
To Stuckart, policy decisions like these say everything you need to know about why marijuana businesses are located in the areas that they are.
“It’s government decision-making, not just because of the industry,” he commented.
A Question of Zoning Regulations
Initiative 502 regulated adult use cannabis in 2012, and the rules that the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board developed to guide the industry allow local governments to set their own zoning regulations.
Spokane County has customized its zoning laws to address cannabis “odor,” which county commissioner Al French says is the jurisdiction’s “No. 1 criteria.” Based on this worry, the county banned outdoor cultivation operations in 2016, raising concern for marijuana farmers committed to using sun grow techniques, which can also be much more environmentally friendly methods of growing cannabis.
“You’ve got these businesses out here trying to operate normally, and they’re legal,” said executive director of the Washington Sun Grower’s Association. “But they’re up against regulations, laws and zoning — any number of things that are still treating them more harshly.”
The same year, Spokane county also banned new dispensaries, and it has prohibited any future businesses from opening close to certain trails, Spokane city hall, and even vacant plots owned by libraries or school districts. It has also loosened state recommendations on how far away cannabis businesses must be located from schools and playgrounds.
The WSU investigation, which was published by the Drug and Alcohol Review journal, tracked counts of cannabis growers, processors, and retail locations across the state. It employed a metric called the Area Deprivation Index to measure average area income, home values, plus employment and education levels.
The study’s conclusions mentioned other potential causes for Washington dispensaries opening in areas that scored high on the index; consumer demand and real estate affordability. (There is little scientific data that suggests low income individuals buy or consume more cannabis.)
Researchers say that the investigation’s results should be communicated to policymakers, but did not suggest changes to standing regulations or programs that should be made.
“We know where these cannabis outlets are located,” said the study’s lead author Solmaz Amiri. “We are going to look over time, what is happening in those neighborhoods?”