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Cities scramble over new medical marijuana dispensary laws

The Medford City Council could not even wait until the ink dried on Oregon Senate Bill 1531, which allows cities and towns to enforce restrictive regulations on medical marijuana dispensaries. On Thursday evening, without even formally giving notice of its motion, the city council in Medford became the first to take such a motion when it approved a moratorium on the local sale of medical marijuana. (To be fully enacted, the ordinance will require a second public reading by Medford city council.) In fact, by press time, Gov. John Kitzhaber had not yet even signed the bill, but has stated his support.

And, on Monday, March 17, Deschutes County commissioners reportedly also will publicly consider an ordinance to ban or limit dispensaries in the area.

In 1998, Oregon voters approved that individuals may grow or possess a limited amount of marijuana strictly for medical reasons, like posttraumatic stress disorder or Crohn's Disesase. But in 2004, voters rejected the proposition that stores—commonly known as dispensaries—be allowed to operate in the state. But, during Oregon's most recent full legislative session, state representatives took the controversial step to allow dispensaries in the state. On March 1, the first day to register dispensaries, nearly 300 dispensaries applied with the state registry, including 19 in Deschutes County, followed only Multnomah (home to Portland) and Jackson (home to Ashland), as the most popular sites.

But city governments, like Medford and Grants Pass, have been vocally opposed to dispensaries, and during the recent month-long session of the Oregon legislature (which wrapped up on Friday, March 7), pushed back. Largely bolstered by Republican representatives, a resolution was introduced that local governments be given the opportunity to permanently ban the sale of medical marijuana. Ultimately, that demand was ratcheted back and the final resolution states that local authorities will be allowed to adopt ordinances to impose "reasonable regulations" on medical marijuana dispensaries, but only until May 2015—and only if they do so by May 1 of this year.

"I think it is a terrible idea," said Jeremy Kwit, specifically referring to the Deschutes County commission decision to consider a ban. Kwit is a level-headed business-owner who recently opened Bloom Well, a dispensary in north Bend. A graduate of UC-Berkeley and the top-ranked Kellogg School of Business, he has worked with nonprofits for the past eight years before opening this new business.

"The thought of a county intervening now after the state (legislature) spent the last eight months considering the issue," he adds, "is wrong."

"I'm not really worried," he adds. "They are putting the cart before the horse," he adds, explaining if there are problems with a business, then the county can police the individual stores.

The plan to allow medical marijuana dispensaries follows the lead from other west coast states, like California, which has allowed them since 1996. Those allowances, however, have see-sawed over the past 18 years; at their height of popularity, dispensaries in Los Angeles outnumbered Starbucks, and generated what has been reported as much as $1 billion in tax revenue. Last May, however, 63% of voters in LA approved an ordinance to limit the number of outlets in the city.

In Oregon, there are over 60,000 registered medical marijuana patients, with 3,100 registered patients in Deschutes County, a percentage almost double the county's share of the state's population.

There are no reported plans by Bend or Redmond to ban or limit dispensaries, but such an ordinance by Deschutes County commissioners most likely would cover the entire area. It would be the first such action by a county in Oregon.

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