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State AG Says Washington Localities Can Ban Pot Stores

Washington state cities and counties can weed out pot stores even though voters approved them in a referendum, the state attorney general said Thursday.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson wrote in a formal legal opinion (.pdf) that the 2012 ballot initiative legalizing possession of up to an ounce of pot for recreational use -- known as I-502 -- neglected to specify that statewide marijuana regulations would trump local laws.

Dozens of Washington municipalities, including major cities like Walla Walla and Yakima, have already adopted measures to snuff out marijuana growing operations, processing facilities and retail shops.

The State Liquor Control Board, which was put in charge of marijuana regulations, sought the AG's opinion to clear up who had the final say -- the state or local authorities. It said the state law was intended to ease access to regulated pot statewide so users wouldn't be driven to the black market.

But Ferguson said Thursday that because the initiative's sponsors failed to explicitly declare that it would supersede local regulations, "normal powers of local governments to regulate within their jurisdictions" remained in place.

The chief author of I-502, Alison Holcomb, director of criminal justice programs for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, bluntly told NBC News, "I think the attorney general got it wrong."

Holcomb said it would have been redundant to say state law was the law statewide, because the initiative specified that the liquor board had the authority to provide "adequate access to licensed sources" of marijuana.

"If the counties are allowed to ban the stores, that directly conflicts with the statute's requirement that there be adequate access," she said.

In the attorney general's words, however, the answer is simple: "If the Legislature wants to change that, it can amend the law," he said in a statement accompanying his opinion. And at least 10 legislators are trying to do just that.

The House members introduced a bill Wednesday that would require cities and counties treat marijuana business, including retail stores, just like any other business that wants to set up shop.