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From Vapegate to LUBA 

2019 wasn't short on marijuana drama

Believe it or not, there was some news in 2019 not totally related to the Oval Office. The U.S. Congress (excluding the do-nothing Senate), the Deschutes County Commission and the Oregon state legislature had a busy 364.5 days when it came to crafting, fighting or violating marijuana policy.

COURTESY PXHERE
  • Courtesy pxhere

Federal activity

The House Judiciary Committee made history by presenting presidential Impeachment Articles for a full House vote. But, in the annals of Congress, that's been done before. What hasn't been done before? Approving legislation that would remove marijuana from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, provide fiscal assistance to minorities to start cannabis companies and provide incentives for states to fully expunge marijuana arrests and undo some of the damage perpetrated by the nearly 50-year-old Drug War. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act passed the committee 24-10 and has a decent chance of passing the entire House, where Democrats hold a 234-seat majority.

This wasn't the cheeky "H.R. 420" Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, introduced by Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR3) in January. This was a fully realized, major piece of marijuana legalization the likes of which has never passed a House Committee before.

What could be next? As long as Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell is majority leader, not a lot. In my biased opinion, however, the Democrats would be missing a huge opportunity if they didn't make weed a wedge issue in the 2020 elections. A vulnerable McConnell polls terribly in his own state, and citizens nationwide support legalization 2-1, according to Pew Research. Just like the right coalesces around abortion, the left can scoop up the democratic, independent, and hipster-Libertarian votes with the right stance on ganja. Your move, Joe Biden.

State moves

Oregon Senate Bill 582—legislation that would allow Oregon weed companies to do business with companies in neighboring states where cannabis is also legal—might have grabbed the top spot for the most impactful event in the state when it comes to marijuana law and jurisprudence.

But then in August, hospitals began reporting a spate of alarming lung illnesses that were connected to cannabis and tobacco vaping. Most of the serious cases involved either nicotine vaping, or those who procured cannabis vape cartridges from the black market. Still, nearly 40 people have died, and more than 2,000 hospitalized. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the state legislature banned flavored vaping products from Oregon Liquor Control Commission dispensaries in an attempt to forestall the epidemic. The Oregon Court of Appeals stayed that ban, however, and the Centers for Disease Control recently began to crack the mystery by identifying a possible culprit, Vitamin E-acetate. The OLCC cautioned that the CDC hasn't ruled out all other causes.

Deschutes County maneuvers

Marijuana isn't terribly controversial inside Bend city limits. It's only if you wander into the Deschutes Services Building on the right day where you might find a large gathering of people fiercely opposed. The summer of 2019 was fraught with the kind of verbal civil war over ganja that we haven't seen since the county first drafted rules.

On July 3, county commissioners held a public meeting regarding proposed changes to the Deschutes County Code over setbacks, separation distances and zoning for marijuana farms, dispensaries and processors. Marijuana industry professionals testified that their businesses have been assailed from all sides by the County's ad-hoc rulemaking, and the frivolous complaints and appeals from rural neighbors. The rural residents expressed fear of "criminal elements," skunky smells and traffic.

The following month, county commissioners voted to "opt out" of accepting new marijuana businesses. In addition, their attempts at a de facto ban on marijuana farms—mainly through a contrived definition of a "youth activity center"—essentially retrofitted any neighboring property with recreational activities as a YAC, requiring a buffer from any marijuana farm. This meant those applicants who beat the "opt out" deadline couldn't even be guaranteed that their massive business investments weren't forfeit.

Help arrived when the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals ruled that the County's YAC definition was unreasonable. One member of LUBA even hinted that it may be impossible for "non-farm" uses on neighboring properties to restrict farming of any sort on EFU property. This may be a central issue for an Oregon Court of Appeals case in 2020, as the reefer madness contingent in Deschutes County has no shortage of attorneys ready to take up the issue on appeal.

Finally, don't forget that "opting in" or "opting out" will make the November 2020 ballot in Deschutes County. If this feels like déjà vu, that's because it is. County voters narrowly approved marijuana in 2014, but the minority cannot accept that outcome.

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