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County Commissioners to Vote on Rural Cannabis Opt Out 

Public hearing May 2

Award-winning cannabis grown in Deschutes County. Photo courtesy of Glass House Grown.

Award-winning cannabis grown in Deschutes County. Photo courtesy of Glass House Grown.

The right to grow marijuana commercially in rural Deschutes County is currently at a standstill. In December, County Commissioners voted to temporarily opt out of Measure 91. The 90-day reevaluation period has come and gone; therefore, this issue is once again on the table.

On May 2 there will be a public hearing held at the Deschutes Services Building at 1300 NW Wall St., Bend, from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m., with a break for lunch. Attendance is estimated to reach near capacity with the county strongly divided on the issue.

Measure 91 states that local governments may not prohibit licenses except with a vote at a general election. However, the Oregon Legislature created an additional provision allowing certain local governments to opt out of the program depending on how the jurisdiction voted on Measure 91.

Deschutes County narrowly voted for Measure 91, with 51.6 percent voting yes. However, the rural part of Deschutes County voted 54.6 percent against it. The legislation gave local governments the ability to opt out of recreational cannabis if 55 percent or more of residents voted against legalizing recreational marijuana. This is not the case in Deschutes County, so any permanent changes will require a vote on the November 2016 ballot.

A vocal group of rural residents is urging Deschutes County Commissioners to continue permanently the temporary opt out it voted to instate in December of last year. If the commissioners decide to opt out permanently, Deschutes County voters would then have a chance to decide on this in November. The hearing on May 2 will provide an opportunity for people in the community on both sides of the issue to inform the Board of County Commissioners' vote on May 4.

Currently local marijuana growers who have bought, or will buy land in Deschutes County's Exclusive Farm Use (EFU) areas are unable to start or continue their businesses until proper regulations are in effect. Those in support of allowing EFU land to be commercially used for growing marijuana state that Deschutes County's reluctance to make informed and fair decisions infringes on their democratic rights to support themselves and their families. Growers also maintain that there will be economic benefits of allowing commercial grow operations in the county.

Tim Lane, a local grower, notes that Oregon collected $3.48 million in revenue from taxes on recreational cannabis sales in January alone. "The economic opportunity is enormous," he says.

County Commissioner Alan Unger, however, does not believe that the economic benefit is a realistic, nor beneficial contribution to the county. "I don't know how that would affect the county other than from property taxes," he says, "and I believe those taxes from farm lands aren't significant to make a difference." He notes some rural area residents feel strongly about not wanting this in their backyard. "We recognize the value of a rural lifestyle of those already living one," says Unger.

The Board of County Commissioners includes three elected officials who serve four-year terms. Currently, in addition to Unger, who is chair, the two other commissioners include Republicans Tammy Baney and Tony DeBone. The commissioners appointed a 13-member Marijuana Advisory Committee (MAC) in February. It includes the Planning Commission Chairman Steve Swisher of the Sisters area, an attorney (at-large member), Alison Hohengarten, five local industry producers, and six rural residents. The group was created to provide recommendations to the commissioners on medical and recreational marijuana land use regulations in unincorporated Deschutes County. However, many of the MAC members are openly opposed to cannabis growing in rural Deschutes County.

MAC member Liz Lotochinski, a rural resident from Tumalo, points to what she perceives as the supporters' lack of consideration for those who do not want to be connected with cannabis. "I don't want to see outdoor grow, or any. Where is their empathy for our right not to be involved?" she asks.

Opponents cite livability issues, emphasizing that their quality of life in the country should be protected and that pot production should be kept inside the city where more infrastructure exists for water, electricity and security.

City Councilor Victor Chudowski says, "We worry that the vote will cater to a small, but vocal minority." He notes that Bend has 18 marijuana stores and there haven't been any problems. "They are no less safe than hair salons," he says.

MAC members met seven times for a total of 26 hours. In its report dated April 20, 2016, the group reached consensus on many issues presented in its recommendations. For example, no drive-through retail window service will be allowed, and a separation of 1,000 feet is required from public and private schools, childcare services, national monuments and state parks. However, it didn't reach consensus on issues such as odor control and EFU land minimum lot sizes for growing. Other topics such as extract processing also did not result in consensus.

The culmination of the MAC meetings was a work session with the Deschutes County Board of Commissioners on April 27, providing its recommendations. The public hearing on May 2 will be the chance for public testimony regarding the decision to opt out or opt in. A vote to opt in would initiate the review/adoption process to regulate medical and recreational marijuana.

Testimony at the hearing may be oral or written, but must be concise due to time restraints and the number of participants expected. Speakers will be given two to three minutes to make comments pertaining to specific uses. Oral and written comments must clearly state whether medical and/or recreational marijuana is being addressed and specific uses.

Quality of life comments must address proposed rules in order to preserve livability. This hearing will not address Measure 91, which was passed by Oregon voters in 2014, and became effective in July 2015. It legalized recreational marijuana for personal use in Oregon.


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