Land Use and Zoning

Policy Recommendations

  • Zoning districts should allow for all cannabis license types to operate within the given jurisdiction.
  • Allow local governments to reduce state-mandated buffer zones.
  • Zoning and land-use laws should not be so restrictive as to effectively create a de facto ban on legal cannabis operators.

Cannabis Land-Use Policies

Land-use regulations for commercial cannabis businesses typically fall under the authority of local governments and include zoning restrictions, buffer zones, density controls, and signage and aesthetic restrictions. State laws often dictate minimum zoning standards for cannabis businesses (e.g. a 500-foot buffer zone between dispensaries and schools), and localities have the authority to adopt additional restrictions. Land-use policies can be crafted in a way that supports a thriving legal market while also adhering to the specific needs of the local community.

Zoning Districts

While some local government officials may be inclined to relegate cannabis retailers to a single zone within their jurisdiction, this will likely limit consumer access to legal retailers and undermine efforts to displace the unregulated market. Cannabis businesses moving into empty or underutilized warehouses in industrial and manufacturing zoned districts presents a key economic opportunity for municipalities. However, zoning districts should account for all cannabis license types to support consumer access and prevent the clustering of businesses in peripheral areas of a community.

Buffer Zones

The goal of a buffer zone is to create distance between sensitive use areas that cannabis businesses are considered undesirable to operate in proximity to, such as schools and daycare centers. Excessive buffer zones between licensed cannabis businesses and designated sensitive use areas can be detrimental to the legal market and counterintuitive to the overarching goal of protecting public health and safety. If buffer zones are so large as to make it virtually impossible for cannabis businesses to exist, the unregulated market will persist with little competition due to a lack of legal access. To ensure that zoning laws enable sufficient retail density, buffer zones should not exceed 500 feet, and municipalities should have the authority to reduce state-mandated buffer zones.

Density Controls

Density controls are methods employed by both state and local governments to control the number of cannabis businesses in a designated region. These interventions often come in the form of license caps or floors, based on population or a ratio to other business types, such as pharmacies in the case of Arizona. Policies that seek to control the density of cannabis businesses in a community should be mindful of ensuring sufficient consumer access to legal cannabis.

Signage and Other Aesthetic Restrictions

Under some state laws, local governments can regulate aesthetic zoning issues such as signage and general curbside appearance. Cannabis businesses, especially retailers, should be allowed to maintain a professional storefront and use reasonable signage to promote their business. Allowing cannabis retailers to have visible storefronts and signage will force businesses to compete on store quality, cleanliness, and curbside appeal.

Equity Considerations

An unintended consequence of overly-restrictive zoning regulations is the potential clustering of cannabis businesses in low-income neighborhoods. A recent Washington State University study found that licensed cannabis businesses in Washington are more likely to be located in low-income areas. Another study found that neighborhoods in Colorado with at least one dispensary had a higher percentage of racial and ethnic minorities, lower median household income, and higher unemployment rates. Zoning has historically been used as a tool to place “locally unwanted land uses” (LULUs), such as hazardous waste facilities and airports, in low-income communities or neighborhoods with high percentages of people of color. While cannabis businesses can bring a plethora of benefits to local communities, safeguards must be put in place to ensure an equitable distribution of cannabis businesses. Further, social equity programs should be created to ensure that the communities most impacted by the War on Drugs can benefit from the legal cannabis industry.

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