Businesses In Limbo As County Officials Continue To Resist Pot

Jamie Muffett was beside himself last month when Yakima County officials announced that they would be pursuing cease-and-desist orders against cannabis-related businesses that operate in unincorporated areas of the county.

The CEO of Sticky Budz, a Zillah-based producer and processor of recreational cannabis, is perplexed as to why the county continues to target a substance that has been grown and sold legally in Washington since 2014.

“Cannabis is going to be just like alcohol in a few years, so what’s the big deal?” Muffett said. “We’re in the same category as a brewery, so why is this not acceptable and brewing beer is? It just doesn’t make sense.”

The Yakima County Commission and Prosecuting Attorney’s Office have been working arduously for the past two years to force cannabis businesses outside city limits to shut down, asserting that their actions are “representing the people.”

Mike Leita and Ron Anderson, the commissioners leading the effort to ban cannabis businesses on county land, have claimed that officials are merely following the will of their constituents, who in 2012 voted overwhelmingly against legalizing recreational cannabis.

Earlier this year, the county applied enough pressure to The Old Pot Shop, off Highway 12 in Gleed, that the business eventually closed. The other local retail shops reside within the city limits of Yakima and Union Gap, which exempts them from county enforcement.

However, there are more than 20 producer/processors outside city limits — many with Tier 3 state-issued licenses — that could be forcibly shut down if they don’t adhere to county regulations.

Those business owners had been looking over their shoulders for a while, but the situation became urgent for them on Nov. 28 when the Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office sent out notification to marijuana-related businesses in unincorporated Yakima County.

Either they halt all operations by March 1, 2019, or face legal action, the letter said.

A Kittitas County Superior Court judge ruled last summer that Yakima County officials had the authority to shut down Sticky Budz, and Muffett said he has had to consider what might happen next if Yakima County officials continue their assault on the industry.

Muffett can’t figure out why county officials are so determined to eliminate jobs and tax revenue. He said the local grower-processors create about $8 million per year in revenue that wouldn’t be available otherwise.

“It’s sad that they are spending all this time and money going after legitimate, legal businesses that are employing tons of people and causing no problems whatsoever in the community,” said Muffett, who employs between 28 and 45 people, depending on the time of year.

“Honestly, we’re just another farm. In our four years here, we’ve never had a complaint.”

What’s even more galling, he says, is that none of the government officials working to undermine legal cannabis operations has ever asked to talk to him — or the other local producer/processors— about their businesses.

He said the powers-that-be conveniently ignore the obvious economic benefits of the industry in favor of an outdated perception that “marijuana is bad.”

“If you’re an official who’s trying to suffocate this industry and you do absolutely no due diligence, you’re choosing not to see the benefits,” he said. “I feel like they’re just being stubborn. They can’t say they don’t want good-paying jobs. They can’t say they don’t want additional tax revenue. They just don’t like cannabis.”

Muffett added that cannabis businesses are among the most highly regulated in Washington, and his staff takes that responsibility very seriously. He said other operations in the Valley, such as Double Dutch Farms and Desert Valley Growers, also do everything by the book.

At four acres, Sticky Budz is one of the largest cannabis farms in the Valley. Muffett said all of the Yakima County cannabis farms combined occupy only about 100 acres of land.

“We’re minute compared to a lot of farms,” he said. “We’re not bothering anyone out here.”

But unfortunately, none of the logical arguments seem to pierce the commission’s protracted stance on the issue.

“The county doesn’t take into account how many people we employ,” he said. “That has to matter, but they pretend it doesn’t.”

Muffett hopes newly elected commissioner Norm Childress might have success in stalling the effort to eliminate businesses like Sticky Budz.

“I hope he’ll have an open mind and talk some sense into the other two commissioners,” Muffett said. “Ninety percent of these businesses are in Norm’s district, so he needs to take an honest look at the situation. We’re not bothering anyone.”

The irony of the recent enforcement push is not lost on Muffett. He said that if the county is successful in shutting down cannabis producers and processors, the taxpayers will lose out on the many economic benefits associated with those operations.

Meanwhile, the farms on county land may have to relocate to cities and towns, or they may depart the area entirely, leaving millions of dollars in potential revenue for another market to scoop up.

Muffett said he will continue to advocate for legal cannabis businesses because he believes the commissioners are missing the big picture. He’s ready to fight based on merit, not on perception.

“This is an agricultural product, and we’re creating tons of jobs and adding money to the tax rolls, just like any other business,” he said. “It’s a growing industry, but for some reason, we’re still treated differently.”

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