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 related to commercial cannabis businesses often fall under the authority of local governments and typically include zoning restrictions, buffer zones, density controls, and signage and aesthetic restrictions. State laws often dictate minimum zoning standards for cannabis businesses, and localities have the authority to set additional restrictions. Land-use ordinances can be crafted in a way that is conducive to a thriving legal market while simultaneously adhering to the specific needs of the local community.

Zoning Districts

While some local government officials may be encouraged to relegate cannabis retailers to peripheral zones of their jurisdiction, it is important to note that 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 restrictions should not impede consumer access. Zoning districts should include all cannabis license types and enable sufficient retail density.

Buffer zones

The goal of buffer zones is to create distance between sensitive use areas that cannabis businesses are considered undesirable to operate in proximity to. 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. Policies should allow licensees the freedom to maintain a professional storefront and use reasonable signage to promote their business. Policies should explicitly prohibit businesses from using advertising or aesthetics that appeal to youth audiences. 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 laws is the potential clustering of cannabis businesses in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of equity indicators, including race, educational attainment, and poverty rates. A recent Washington State University study found that licensed cannabis businesses in Washington state are more likely to be found in low-income areas, which can be attributed to high levels of variation in local zoning ordinances. Another study found that neighborhoods in Colorado with at least one dispensary had a larger percentage of racial and ethnic minorities, lower median household income and larger 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 communities with high percentages of communities of color. Safeguards must be put in place to ensure an equitable distribution of cannabis businesses, and social equity programs must be established to ensure that the communities most impacted by the War on Drugs are able to benefit from the cannabis industry.

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