Washington pot growers seek right-to-farm protection

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OLYMPIA — Washington marijuana growers want to take another step toward joining mainstream agriculture, though their presence may raise questions about taxes and labor law.

Cannabis advocates are championing legislation to insert marijuana into the state’s right-to-farm law.

The law bars new neighbors from claiming dust, odors and noise from an existing farm’s lawful operations are a nuisance.

Outdoor marijuana farms in particular need protection from disgruntled neighbors, the advocates say.

“We are intimately aware that there are people who do not like cannabis,” said Lara Kaminsky, executive director of the Cannabis Alliance, an advocacy group.

Washington voters legalized recreational pot in 2012, and production and sales are flourishing. The state has 1,128 licensed marijuana producers. Retail pot sales totaled $972.7 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, according to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. Sales for this fiscal year already have topped $984 million.

Currently, however, Washington’s right-to-farm law specifically excludes marijuana. The House agriculture committee recently voted 11-4 to reverse that policy.

House Bill 1692 prime sponsor Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, said the law shouldn’t discriminate against marijuana — anymore than it does against beer-essential hops or wine-producing grapes.

“Regardless of how we feel about the end product, it should be considered agriculture,” he said.

The bill could affect more than nuisance lawsuits.

As passed by the agriculture committee, the bill makes it clear that marijuana growers would continue to pay business and occupation taxes.

Farmers who sell other agricultural products are exempt from paying the tax on wholesale income.

More controversially, the Democratic-led committee excluded marijuana growers from the state’s farm labor law.

The law exempts farms from having to pay overtime.

Buys and other Republicans objected to the amendment, which was suggested by United Food and Commercial Workers lobbyist Seamus Petrie. The union is seeking to organize the marijuana industry’s workforce.

One marijuana grower testified that in an emergency he needs workers to put in long hours, just like other farms.

So far, mainstay farm groups have been largely absent from the debate. The Washington Farm Bureau remains mostly silent on marijuana. “We don’t advocate for crops that are illegal under federal law. Simple as that,” Tom Davis, the Farm Bureau’s director of government relations, said.

The issue may get more attention, however, if the House passes over to the Senate a bill that would bring marijuana farms into the agricultural fold, but set a precedent by excluding its workers from farm labor law.

“That will probably raise some red flags for the ag folks,” Davis said.