Marijuana Regulation in Washington State

Antonio G Ginting

This page provides an overview of the recreational and medical marijuana laws that local and state government agencies must comply with and enforce in Washington State, including a map of local regulatory approaches and examples.


With the passage of Initiative 502 in 2012, the state of Washington moved to a comprehensive regulatory approach on marijuana, with state-licensed producers, processors, and retailers. As of July 1, 2016, the production and marketing of medical marijuana is also incorporated into the same regulatory framework as recreational marijuana, with some variations such as the allowance of medical marijuana cooperatives.

Under the 2016 legislation, all marijuana licensing is regulated and enforced by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB). To assist with the legislative changes, the LCB published on their website a Medical Marijuana Transition webpage that continues to provides access to many useful resources, among them: Medical Marijuana FAQs and Cooperatives FAQs.

Any sale of recreational marijuana or medical marijuana, other than by a state-licensed retailer is criminal, as is any production or processing of marijuana for sale outside the state-licensed regulated system.

The primary statutes for recreational marijuana are codified in chapter 69.50 RCW, beginning with RCW 69.50.325; the medical marijuana statutes are located in chapter 69.51A RCW. The Liquor and Cannabis Board regulations for marijuana are found in chapter 314-55 WAC.

Land Use and Zoning Law

Cities, towns, and counties in Washington State can choose to prohibit or to designate appropriate zones for state-licensed marijuana businesses because Washington local governments have authority to enact legislation regulating land uses within their jurisdictions. However, it is the State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) that has final authority over whether to grant or deny the license to operate in Washington State.

Cities, towns, and counties can file objections to the granting of a state license at a particular location and the Liquor and Cannabis Board must “give substantial weight to objections,” but it is still up to the LCB to make the state license decision. See RCW 69.50.331(10).

This section provides an overview of the land use related statutes regulating marijuana businesses.

Minimum Buffer Distance

RCW 69.50.331(8) requires licensed marijuana producers, processors or retailers to be located at least 1,000 feet from the following entities:

  • Elementary or secondary school;
  • Playground;
  • Recreation center or facility;
  • Child care center;
  • Public park;
  • Public transit center;
  • Library; or
  • Any game arcade (where admission is not restricted to persons age 21 or older).

The 1,000 feet buffer distance must be measured as the shortest straight line distance from the property line of the proposed business location to the property line of any of the entities listed above. See WAC 314-55-050 (10). Definitions for the entities are found at WAC 314-55-010.

Local governments may reduce the 1,000 feet buffer to 100 feet around all entities except elementary and secondary schools, and public playgrounds by enacting an ordinance authorizing the distance reduction. See RCW 69.50.331(8)(b).

Residential Properties and Small Rural Parcels

The State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) will not issue licenses for marijuana producers, processors, and retailers on property that is used as a residence because law enforcement officials must have access to the premises for inspections without a warrant (WAC 314-55-015(5)). However, note that state law still allows a medical marijuana patient or caregiver to have a designated number of marijuana plants located within a residence. See RCW 69.51A.040.

Local governments are specifically authorized to prohibit licensed marijuana businesses on lands zoned for residential use or rural use with a minimum lot size of five acres or smaller. See RCW 69.50.331(9).

Medical Marijuana Cooperatives

The statutes on “collective gardens” were repealed effective July 1, 2016 and replaced by a statute authorizing “cooperatives” for the growing of marijuana for medical use (RCW 69.51A.250).

The statutes on cooperatives are more restrictive than the prior collective gardens provisions. Below is a list of some of these restrictions:

  • Cooperatives must be located in the domicile of one of the participants. See RCW 69.51A.250(7).
  • Cooperatives may have up to a maximum of four qualifying patients or providers as members. See RCW 69.51A.250(1).
  • Participants may grow up to a maximum of 60 plants and possess up to 72 ounces of usable marijuana. See RCW 69.51A.250(6)(a).
  • None of the marijuana from a cooperative can be sold to others. See RCW 69.51A.250(6)(e).

Local governments are authorized to prohibit medical marijuana cooperatives. See RCW 69.51A.250(3)(c).

Map of Local Zoning Ordinances

City and county zoning measures adopted since initiative 502 was approved are diverse. Some jurisdictions have enacted total prohibitions, while others have allowed marijuana businesses in appropriate zoning districts (retail marijuana businesses in retail zones, outdoor marijuana production in agricultural zones, and indoor marijuana production and marijuana processing in industrial zones). See the statewide map below with links to ordinances, to learn which jurisdictions are zoning for marijuana businesses and which have prohibited them.

Most jurisdictions that allow indoor marijuana production in warehouse-type structures, such as Moses Lake or Ellensburg, have limited them to manufacturing and/or industrial zones. Some urban jurisdictions, like Vancouver, have chosen to allow all marijuana businesses only in industrial or light industrial zones – to keep them tucked away where they will be less obvious or controversial. Additionally, some cities, like the city of Newport, require a conditional use permit process and impose conditions concerning issues such as odors emanating from the property.

Counties have also adopted a variety of minimum lot sizes and setback requirements for marijuana production, which MRSC has compiled in a comprehensive list. The data was gathered from online county codes and ordinances November 2016. See List of Washington County Minimum Lot Sizes and Setback Requirements for Marijuana Production (xls).

The state map below contains a wealth of information regarding how local governments across the state have zoned for state-licensed marijuana businesses. MRSC attempts to provide accurate and complete data from all jurisdictions in Washington. For questions or comments regarding this map, please email MRSC. If you are experiencing difficulties viewing the map, please use this link.

Examples of Zoning Ordinances

Reduce Buffer Zones

The following ordinance examples are from jurisdictions that have reduced the 1,000 feet buffer around selected entities (except elementary and secondary schools, and public playgrounds) as allowed by RCW 69.50.331(8)(b).

  • Shelton Municipal Code Sec. 20.72.020 – Reduces buffers to 500 feet for researchers, processors, and producers (not retailers) for child care centers, arcades, libraries, public parks, public transit centers, and rec. facilities. Keeps 1,000 foot buffer for other entities (schools, etc.).
  • George Ordinance No. 2016-02 (2016) – Reduce buffers to 100 feet for parks, recreational/community centers, libraries, childcare centers, game arcades, and public transit centers.
  • Seattle Ordinance No. 124969 (2016) – Reduces the buffer zones differently for retail outlets and other marijuana activities, fluctuating it between 350 and 500 feet.
  • Olympia Ordinance No. 7046 (2016) – Reduces marijuana retail buffers to 500 feet except for elementary and secondary schools which remain at 1,000 feet.
  • Tacoma Amended Ordinance No. 28361 (2016) – Reduces marijuana retail buffer zones to 500 feet for correctional facilities, court houses, drug rehabilitation facilities, substance abuse facilities, detoxification centers, parks, recreational centers, libraries, childcare centers, and game arcades only within downtown districts; the 1,000 feet buffer zone remains effective for those same facilities located outside the downtown district.

Allow Medical Marijuana Cooperatives

Below are examples of ordinances that allow medical marijuana cooperatives.

  • Electric City Ordinance No. 515-2016 (2016) – Requires a registration of the cooperative from the city, in addition to any other permits or registration required by state or federal law. Cultivation and processing should not be seen nor smelled from a public place or the private property of another housing unit.
  • Tacoma Amended Ordinance No. 28361 (2016) – Provides that cooperatives must be operated in a manner that is clearly secondary to the primary use of the property as a residence so as to not affect the character of the neighborhood. Cooperatives shall not generate nuisances such as traffic, on street parking, noise, etc.

Prohibit Medical Marijuana Cooperatives

Below are examples of ordinances that have applied prohibitions on cooperatives as allowed by RCW 69.51A.250(3)(c).

  • Anacortes Ordinance No. 2989 (2016) – Amends municipal code prohibiting marijuana cooperatives in all city zones and replaces Ordinance No. 2985 (2016) which extended a moratorium on marijuana cooperatives.
  • Chelan County Ordinance No. 2016-14 (2016) – Prohibits all marijuana production and processing, including marijuana cooperatives, in unincorporated Chelan County and declares all said uses public nuisances. Lawfully established businesses in operation prior to September 29, 2015 must terminate by March 1, 2018.
  • Shelton Municipal Code Sec. 20.72.040 – Prohibits marijuana cooperatives in all zoning districts; violations may be abated as nuisances.

Allow Marijuana Businesses in Appropriate Zoning Districts

Below are examples of ordinances that establish permanent zoning regulations for state-licensed marijuana businesses.

  • Shoreline Ordinance No. 735 (2016) – Incorporates development regulations relating to marijuana retail, processor, and producer businesses, as well as medical cooperatives into the city’s unified development code.
  • Newport Municipal Code Sec.17.03.140 – Requires that facilities associated with marijuana production, processing, transportation and/or sale acquire a conditional use permit in the industrial zone.
  • Vancouver Municipal Code Ch. 20.884 – Limits marijuana production or processing to light industrial or heavy industrial zones, and marijuana retail business to general commercial or community commercial zone districts. Prohibits marijuana businesses as a home occupation, outdoors or in a mobile structure.
  • Spokane Valley Municipal Code Ch. 19.85 – Limits marijuana production in regional and community commercial zones to indoor production, and also limits marijuana processing in regional and community commercial zones to packaging and labeling of usable marijuana.

Address Marijuana Transportation Businesses

Below are examples of ordinances that adopt language addressing marijuana transportation businesses.

Limit Number of Retail Marijuana Businesses Allowed

Through the state agency rulemaking process the Liquor and Cannabis Board has adopted regulations on the maximum number or retail store licenses that will be issued for each county, and for some of the cities and towns in each county. The data is available on the LCB website’s document: Retail Store Allocations.

Some jurisdictions, such as the ones below, have adopted ordinances that limit the number of retail marijuana business licenses/stores at a number below what the LCB allows. There are varying viewpoints about whether state law allows such regulations.

  • Everett Ordinance No. 3486-16 (2016) – Limits the number of retail marijuana stores allowed in the city to a maximum of five. The city shall review the maximum number of retail marijuana stores allowed before June 1, 2018, to determine whether this maximum number should be changed.
  • Renton Ordinance No. 5816 (2016) – Limits the number of marijuana retail business licenses to no more than five.

Adopt Interim Zoning Regulations of Marijuana Businesses

Below is an example of an ordinance that adopts provisional zoning regulations for licensed marijuana businesses, subject to review and amendment within a designated time period, as allowed by RCW 35A.63.220.

  • Bellingham Ordinance No. 2016-08-025 (2016) – Adopted and renewed interim zoning regulations on the production, processing, or retailing of recreational and medical marijuana. Expired February 8, 2017.

Adopt a Moratorium on Marijuana Businesses

Below is an example of an ordinance prohibiting licensed marijuana businesses for a designated time, while the legislative body gives the matter further consideration, as allowed by RCW 35A.63.220 and RCW 35.63.200.

  • Eatonville Ordinance No. 2018-2 (2018) – Imposed a moratorium on the production, processing, or retail sale of recreational marijuana. Expired August 26, 2018.

Prohibit Marijuana Businesses

The list below provides examples of jurisdictions that have prohibited marijuana businesses either through an outright ban, such as the city of Poulsbo, or through other local enactments, such as adopting licensing regulations prohibiting businesses that do not comply with federal laws (e.g. Pomeroy or Leavenworth).

  • Leavenworth Municipal Code Sec. 5.04.170(B) – Provides that every business licensee must comply with all federal, state, and city statutes, laws, regulations, and ordinances relating to the business premises and the conduct of the business thereon.
  • Poulsbo Ordinance No. 2014-12 (2014) – Prohibits production, processing, and retailing of marijuana.
  • Pomeroy Ordinance No. 880 (2015) – Adopts license regulation prohibiting businesses that do not comply with federal law.
  • Othello Ordinance No. 1473 (2016) – Prohibits marijuana production, processing, and retailing, and includes a clause permitting possession or use for personal consumption as allowed by the Revised Code of Washington.
  • Richland Municipal Code Sec. 23.08.100 – Prohibits marijuana-related land uses allowed under state law. Furthermore, no land use that is determined by a planning manager to be in violation of any local, state, or federal law is permitted.

Regulatory Compliance

All licensed marijuana businesses operating in Washington State must comply with a wide range of local, state, and federal regulations and codes. To ensure and enforce compliance, local government officials and building inspectors must understand which regulations and codes apply and which agency has the authority to enforce them.

The Interagency Resource for Achieving Cooperation and a partnership of Washington Municipalities and industry representatives have created some guidelines to facilitate the process of understanding these regulations in the document Regulatory Guidance for Cannabis Operations. With the same goal, MRSC has prepared the following list of applicable regulations and codes clarifying which government agency is responsible for enforcing them.

Local Government

  • Building, plumbing, electrical and fire codes are enforced by the local government jurisdiction where the business is located.
  • Smells and fumes are generally a nuisance issue handled by local government.

State and Local Government

  • Wastewater discharge is managed through the agency operating the local treatment plant. Procedures used for disposal of marijuana solid waste that is not “dangerous waste” must be handled properly (WAC 314-55-097(4)). Disposal of solvents, pesticides, fertilizers and materials classified as “dangerous waste” will need to be done in accordance with state regulations (WAC 314-55-097).
  • Exterior signage is normally a matter of local concern, but state law places strict limits on signage for marijuana businesses (WAC 314-55-155). The local government will enforce local signage requirements. Violations of state signage regulations should be brought to the attention of the Liquor and Cannabis Board. Local governments could adopt the WAC signage requirement as a local regulation and then also enforce that stricter standard. There are also state regulations for signs that must be placed within marijuana businesses (WAC 314-55-086). Enforcement is the responsibility of the Liquor and Cannabis Board.
  • Fencing is normally a local concern, but state law places special requirements for marijuana producers who grow plants outside (WAC 314-55-075). Enforcement of the WAC fencing requirement is the responsibility of the Liquor and Cannabis Board, though a local government could adopt the WAC standard and also enforce that regulation.

State Government

  • Security requirements for licensed marijuana businesses are set out in state regulations (WAC 314-55-083). The State Liquor and Cannabis Board staff will inspect and make sure that all requirements are met.

Federal Government

Marijuana Taxes and Revenues

The State imposes a 37% marijuana excise tax at the time of retail sale (RCW 69.50.535). In addition, most marijuana sales are subject to normal retail sales taxes, and marijuana businesses are subject to business and occupation taxes. However, RCW 82.08.9998 exempts sales of certain medical marijuana products and high CBD/low THC products from retail sales tax. For more information, see the Department of Revenue page on Taxes Due on Marijuana.

The revenue from the 37% excise tax is shared with cities, towns, and counties (RCW 69.50.540), with some of the revenues distributed on a per capita (population) basis and the rest distributed based upon actual marijuana retail sales. Cities, towns, and counties that prohibit marijuana producers, processors, or retailers are not eligible for per capita distributions.

The portion of state distribution attributed to retail sales is certified by the LCB by September 15 of each year for distribution in the forthcoming state fiscal year. The state treasurer will make the transfers to local governments in four installments, by the last day of each fiscal quarter.

You can keep track of the state marijuana excise tax revenue collected by going to the LCB’s Monthly Marijuana Dashboard.

Law Enforcement

Marijuana law in Washington State legalizes the possession of specified amounts of marijuana and the private recreational and medical use of marijuana. Under state law licensed marijuana businesses can grow, process and sell marijuana. Police officers may arrest individuals for driving under the influence of marijuana (RCW 46.61.502) and they may issue citations for consuming marijuana in public (RCW 69.50.445).

Marijuana in the Workplace

Employers’ rights to enact drug policies prohibiting marijuana use in and outside the workplace under Washington law did not change after the adoption of the marijuana initiative in 2012. Initiative 502 is silent on the topic of marijuana use and testing in the workplace, and marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Where in force, federal regulations may still prohibit use and mandate testing for marijuana.

For more information on employment-related issues regarding marijuana, see Marijuana in the Workplace FAQ.

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