County sets medical marijuana ban hearing for April 21

Mike Rachford

Mike Rachford

The Hood River County Board of Commissioners will be seeking the public’s input next month on whether or not it should temporarily ban medical marijuana dispensaries from setting up shop in the county’s unincorporated areas.

At its regular meeting on Monday, the board of commissioners voted to hold a public hearing during its next regular meeting on Monday, April 21, at 6 p.m. to discuss adopting an ordinance that would place a moratorium on dispensaries for six months. The ordinance would not affect areas located inside the city limits of Hood River and Cascade Locks, which are under the jurisdictions of those cities’ respective councils.

A bill legalizing medical marijuana dispensaries in the state of Oregon was signed into law by Gov. Kitzhaber last year and went into effect March 3. According to the Oregon Health Authority, which manages the state’s Medical Marijuana Program, nearly 300 dispensaries applied to do business in Oregon within the first week of the registry opening. Two applications were from prospective dispensary operators looking to locate in Hood River County.

However, the law also allows local governments to place year-long bans on dispensaries as well as “time, place, and manner” restrictions. The moratoria are intended to give local governing bodies time to research issues surrounding medical marijuana and develop rules regarding “reasonable restrictions” on how dispensaries operate before the establishments open. The deadline for enacting a moratorium is May 1, with an expiration of May 1, 2015.

Commissioners eventually decided on holding a public hearing to consider an emergency ordinance — which would go into effect immediately but only be in place for six months — due to concerns from county counsel that the commission may not make the May 1 deadline if it went through the traditional method of adopting an ordinance, which would not go into effect until 31 days after its enactment. According to the county’s charter, an emergency ordinance may be enacted if the ordinance is deemed necessary “to meet a public emergency affecting life, health or property.”

Representatives of several county departments as well as State Rep. Mark Johnson were present in the county board room Monday evening to offer testimony on the moratorium — all of whom indicated the issue was a complex one that needed ample consideration.

County Planning Director Mike Benedict touched on discrepancies between county and state zoning laws and how that might affect the siting of dispensaries, which are allowed by the state on land zoned agricultural, commercial, industrial, and/or mixed use. Benedict noted that in the case of Hood River County, “on [exclusive farm use land] we have no provisions for, lack of a better word, a drugstore.”

Deirdre Kasberger, director of the county’s juvenile department, was pro-moratorium and asked commissioners to take their time on the issue.

“I think that the more conservative we can be the better,” she told the commission. “I’m particularly concerned about the potential effect [of marijuana] on adolescents.”

Hood River County Commission on Children and Families Prevention Specialist Maija Yasui said she was concerned that society’s increasingly permissive attitude toward marijuana would encourage children to use the drug and asked the county consider the moratorium.

“Basically we know that if [marijuana is] easily available, easily accessible, and the message is that it’s harmless, or it’s not harmful, that youth will increase their usage,” Yasui said.

Brian Rockett, chief deputy for the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office, said his department was “not set to do an official opinion” on medical marijuana dispensaries, but noted that “it probably wouldn’t be opposed if the county was to set this moratorium.”

State Representative Mark Johnson said he had spent a good deal of time speaking with local agencies about this issue and nearly all were of a similar opinion on the moratorium issue.

“I don’t know that I’ve heard from any public agency in my district that is overwhelmingly supportive of moving forward without local control,” he told the commission.

Mike Rachford, who has applied to operate a dispensary on Oak Street within Hood River’s city limits, was also present at the meeting, where he learned his dispensary would not be affected by the moratorium if it were passed. However, he argued vigorously that the county not place a moratorium on dispensaries. He explained that currently, medical marijuana cardholders, who are legally allowed to grow marijuana for personal use, will often sell their excess marijuana on the black market. Rachford said dispensaries would actually help curb the flow of marijuana into the black market by offering patients a legal way for them to sell their excess product.

“Now this is a legal avenue for these folks to be able to produce this product and bring it to a dispensary that will test it and provide safety all through the process and these people can actually make money with the excess that they’ve generated,” he said. “So, we feel that if you put a moratorium and we don’t have an avenue for these folks, then it just goes out on the black market and it just increases that sector and we feel that’s the sector where the crime and the problems are.”

Rep. Johnson mentioned that the issue of a moratorium may not matter by November due to a proposed ballot measure currently circulating Oregon that would legalize recreational marijuana. Commissioner Maui Meyer noted that if it passed, a six-month moratorium would take the commission “to the eve of the election,” at which point commissioners could revisit the issue, if necessary.

“So if it’s on the November ballot — let’s just assume it passes, for the sake of discussion — this entire thing is moot; it becomes an outright use,” Meyer said.

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