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Deschutes County Sheriff comes out against growers. Will the war on weed ever end?

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The "Buy Local" movement has its roots in the foodie movement—but a similar trend exists among the expanding number of people who purchase legal marijuana. They want to know their grower, or at least know where their favorite strain of Purple Kush comes from.

La Pine-based Pangaea Organics, a Tier 1 producer—or micro producer, which doesn't have greenhouses that light up the evening sky—just got licensing to produce as well as process medical marijuana in Deschutes County. The company's founder, Joseph C. Escobar, said keeping it local is a main focus.

"Our main goal is what's efficient," Escobar told the Source. "It makes the most sense to be as present as possible in your own backyard."

Escobar said Pangaea sells from La Pine to Bend and only as far as Prineville.

"We are very selective with the dispensaries we work with," he said.

County Concerns

The Deschutes County Sheriff's Office has a different opinion on localism when it comes to your weed.

Sheriff Shane Nelson has come out publicly, denouncing legal marijuana grows in the county, even though they're voter approved. In a video on the KTVZ website, Nelson said that because marijuana is still classified as illegal federally, he does not want growing operations in Deschutes County.

Currently, there are 56 active licenses in Deschutes County, including one lab, 10 processors, 18 producers and a total of 27 retailers and wholesalers. In addition, there are 145 applications waiting to be processed, 70 of which are producers. But, if the sheriff has his way. ...

"The sheriff is very clear he doesn't want marijuana grows in Deschutes County," Deschutes County Public Information Officer and Records Supervisor, Sgt. William Bailey said. "He's received calls from many citizens that live here that are unhappy about [grow operations.]"

Escobar, whose business is located two doors down from the Oregon State Police office in La Pine, said while he understands the frustrations of some in the county, he doesn't agree with the sheriff's remarks.

"They're trying to put a chokehold on something that's already in effect," he said.

The final meeting between Deschutes County Commissioners and other state agencies about Oregon's controversial cash crop as part of the County's marijuana evaluation project took place in front of about 30 people Jan. 29. Although not everyone in the room was bright eyed and bushy tailed, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission gave a presentation updating the state's recreational marijuana program, then answered commissioners' questions and public comments.

Over the course of the last few weeks, the Commission has met with the Oregon Department of Agriculture—the agency that administers many programs that affect marijuana producers and processors—as well as meeting with the DCSO and the OLCC.

The meetings have covered a wide range of issues, from water use to proposed changes in code enforcement that would affect the OLCC and local law enforcement.

Currently, the bulk of code enforcement is complaint based—like when a member of the public calls law enforcement or the OLCC in regard to a growing operation, such as a complaint about odor, for example, or a minor purchasing from a dispensary. During the meeting with DCSO, county commissioners expressed the desire to move toward a more proactive model of enforcement, including actively searching for illegal grows and investigating permitted growing operations. This would increase the need for more law enforcement staffing and other resources.

Currently, the DCSO has one deputy assigned to cannabis-related code enforcement. According to Bailey, the sheriff's office is looking to add one more fulltime position for code enforcement, but the timeline is unclear at this point. Bailey said funding for the new position will come from a combination of sheriff's office personnel budget and county money. He said to date, the sheriff's office hasn't received a single dollar from the $85 million in marijuana tax money dispersed last year.

Joy Krawczyk, communications operations manager at the Oregon Department of Revenue, told the Source that Deschutes County has received $442,646 from marijuana tax revenue collected between Jan. 4, 2016 and Nov. 30, 2017. Krawczyk said the money is distributed like so: Counties receive 10 percent of total marijuana tax revenues. If a county opts out of allowing growing operations, it isn't eligible for the 5 percent of the tax revenue based on state grow canopy; if a county opts out of the other legal operations—wholesale, processing or retail—there goes another 5 percent in tax revenue. Still, it's true that the money hasn't touched the sheriff's budget, because according to Deschutes County spokesperson Whitney Hale, the county hasn't yet made a determination of how the money will be spent.

Steven Marks, OLCC's executive director, said the proposed enforcement changes are different than how the agency patrols liquor infractions.

"Liquor is mostly complaint based," Marks said.

Marks said part of the problem with enforcing pot laws is the newness of the program, and the many different types of enforcement, from labs and growing operations to sales. He said his agency splits enforcement on labs—the most difficult to enforce—with the Oregon Health Authority.

Another issue with code enforcement, especially east of the Cascades, is staffing. Currently there's only one OLCC inspector in Deschutes County, and that person is responsible for all the other eastern counties.

When the voters of Oregon decided to legalize medical and recreational marijuana, the cost of the drug plummeted as legal weed shrunk the black market's share. Marks said the current cost of 1 gram of marijuana sold in dispensaries is about $6. He said new regulations and enforcement shouldn't affect the pricing significantly.

"Enforcement is pretty affordable for the overall cost," he said.

"Competition in the market is more the driving force around price," Marks added. "We make more money on alcohol than we used to, not because we sell more; it's because we sell more expensive alcohol. I think the marijuana market will do the same."

Federal Concerns

In January, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memorandum, written by President Obama-era Deputy Attorney General James Cole, which directed "enforcement of state law by state and local law enforcement and regulatory bodies should remain the primary means of addressing marijuana-related activity."

According to a news release by Sen. Ron Wyden, along with Sen. Jeff Merkley, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Rep. Peter DeFazio and 50 other legislators, Sessions' actions are putting jobs, small businesses, state infrastructure, consumers, minorities and patients at risk. Sessions' new memorandum gives "prosecutorial discretion" to U.S. attorneys and states that "marijuana activity is a serious crime."

According to a letter Wyden and his peers wrote to President Donald Trump, they believe the passing of laws in Oregon, and the other states that allow legal marijuana use, have helped eliminate the blackmarket sale of marijuana, thus allowing law enforcement to focus on real threats to public health and safety.

"This action by the Department of Justice has the potential to unravel efforts to build sensible drug policies that encourage economic development as we finally move away from antiquated practices that have hurt disadvantaged communities," the legislators wrote.


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