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Originally published Tuesday, January 21, 2014 at 5:36 PM

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Editorial: Cities wrong to pre-empt pot sales, but should have right to do so

Cities and counties banning legal marijuana sales are making a mistake, but they should be free to make it.

Seattle Times Editorial

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PRESIDENT Obama’s declaration that marijuana legalization experiments in Washington and Colorado are “important for society” should push more states to tear up prohibition laws and start anew.

But someone needs to make sure Obama’s message gets to city and county councils across Washington that are moving in the opposite direction.

Thirty-nine of the state’s 75 largest cities, including Kent, Renton and Federal Way, have bans or moratoriums on the new legal marijuana businesses authorized by 2012’s Initiative 502. These local officials, apparently basing their decisions on irrational fears, chose the failed policy of prohibition, and the perpetuation of the black market. They choose illicit dealers over startup businesses.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s opinion last week made clear local governments can make the choice. Local laws often can pre-empt state law, except when state law specifically prohibits it. I-502 didn’t explicitly pre-empt local officials across the state from freezing out marijuana businesses.

As wrongheaded as those decisions are, municipalities should be free to make them. Recreational marijuana sales are a luxury, not a fundamental right such as medical care or a civil right such as the freedom to marry, which demand state-level pre-emption.

The Legislature is considering coercing municipalities to allow marijuana business with a threat to withhold liquor tax revenue. This heavy-handed approach would ensure a costly lawsuit and calcify resistance.

Instead, the state should roll out this grand experiment in the willing municipalities. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes had demanded more marijuana stores than the 21 proposed by the Liquor Control Board. Fine, the board should make Seattle a bit greener, soaking up, say, Renton’s allocation.

In a year or two, the municipalities turning their backs on I-502 will see that the new approach is the better approach, and will open the business licensing windows. If not, voters have a ripe litmus test to judge their elected leaders.

We’ve seen this pattern before. State law allows municipalities to ban liquor sales. Over the seven decades since liquor prohibition ended, the tally of entirely dry cities and counties shrank to zero.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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