By John Schroyer
After Oregon voters approved recreational marijuana legalization last year, the state approved a bill allowing communities where support for the initiative was low to ban commercial cannabis activity.
So far, at least 13 cities and four counties have taken advantage of that opportunity, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) and the Oregon League of Cities.
But that’s not the whole story.
In reality, far more cannabis-wary officials in rural parts of the state have been implementing a variety of restrictions and regulations designed to both hamper the marijuana industry and also clamp down on cannabis use. The moves could limit opportunities in smaller towns and push cannabis businesses to bigger cities that are more accepting of the industry.
One of the most prominent examples is Grants Pass, a town of roughly 35,000 in the southern part of the state, where the city council in mid-July approved a new ordinance requiring that all marijuana be grown indoors.
The law essentially eliminates a longstanding local tradition, as many medical cannabis cultivators and home growers in that area prefer to grow outside. The ban went into effect immediately for private recreational cannabis grows and will apply to MMJ cultivators starting in January. It will also cover commercial recreational sites when they emerge.
The council’s decision drew immediate outrage from cannabis advocates who have long been accustomed to growing outdoors. Pete Gendron, a board member of the Oregon Sungrown Growers Guild (OSGG), said he expects a lawsuit to be filed over the ban.
“We are discussing with attorneys how to proceed forward with this, but there are individuals within the city and county that have already started to collect funds and approach attorneys,” Gendron said. “Until we win one of these cases in court… I believe (officials) will continue to attempt to ban cultivation in order to stem the supply of legal cannabis.”
Robert Graham, an attorney in Grants Pass, said the situation is indicative of a larger trend.
“It’s not an isolated incident,” Graham said. “There are efforts throughout the state (to curtail the marijuana industry).”
Graham said that instead of going with straight-out bans, many local governments are instead relying on overly burdensome regulations that are so strict they essentially add up to prohibition. Such methods have been used or are underway in the municipalities of Cave Junction and Medford, he said.
Other municipalities and counties have taken steps to limit the marijuana trade since voters passed Measure 91 last November, which legalized recreational cannabis use and sales.
– Douglas, Umatilla, Harney and Malheur Counties, all in rural parts of the state, have already opted into a ban under the new state law.
– So have the municipalities of Baker City, Brownsville, Hermiston, Hubbard, Island City, Junction City, Nyssa, Oakland, Ontario, Sandy, Sutherlin, Vale and Winston, according to both the OLCC and a survey by the Oregon League of Cities. Two additional cities have banned MMJ businesses.
– Deschutes County, in central Oregon, may also enact a ban.
– The eastern Oregon city of Pendleton approved a nuisance ordinance under which cannabis users can be fined $500 if neighbors smell marijuana smoke. In Roseburg, also in the southern part of the state, the city council is considering a similar outdoor cultivation ban to the one Grants Pass implemented, Gendron said.
The state is currently allowing cities and counties to enact bans on commercial cannabis activity if 55% or more of local voters opposed Measure 91 in the 2014 election, but the window for local governments to do so will close in December.
The anti-cannabis trend mirrors to an extent what happened in Colorado after recreational marijuana was legalized in 2012, in which dozens of local governments decided to prohibit rec businesses.
In Oregon, such bans have been much less commonplace than they were in Colorado ahead of the recreational marijuana industry’s launch there.
Essentially all such moves have been in more rural parts of Oregon, as opposed to in urban centers such as Portland, Eugene, Salem or Bend, where the rec industry is more likely to be centered.
It’s somewhat understandable why officials in southern Oregon are eyeing 0utdoor cultivation bans given the proliferation of such operations, some observers say.
“I was just on the phone with a county talking about this exact thing, trying to prevent them from opting out (of the rec program), and I feel their pain,” said Portland attorney Amy Margolis. “These counties have tons of outdoor out-of-control grows right now. Southern Oregon is crazy right now… You cannot throw a stone without hitting a grow, and people are complaining. They’re complaining they don’t know their neighbors anymore, they’re complaining about waste water, they’re complaining about people defacing mountains. Some of that is BS, and some of it is not.”
Margolis further said that she thinks a lot of the impediments to the industry either will stay on the smaller end of the scale, or will end up being reversed so that cannabis companies will flourish.
“Do I think that all of eastern Oregon banning cannabis is a good idea? No. I think it’s stupid. But they’re going to come around, and I hope they’ll see it work everywhere else, like Portland and Eugene and other places, and they’ll realize this is a positive system to participate in,” Margolis said.
She noted that the Grants Pass ordinance wasn’t a straight-out ban on commercial marijuana, only a restriction against growing outdoors. Indoor cultivation is still legal, she pointed out, and therefore she doubts that a lawsuit to overturn the ordinance will succeed.
Gendron, however, said the problem is more widespread than some think it is.
“A number of these cities aren’t pursuing bans; they’re just refusing to issue business licenses,” Gendron said, predicting that the “prohibitionist mentality” driving such moves will continue until a judge sides with Measure 91 and the cannabis industry.
Margolis, however, was more optimistic.
“This industry’s going to thrive, and that’s because there a lot of good, smart people working in it,” she said.
John Schroyer can be reached at [email protected]