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Grow Woes 

The ongoing battle pits cannabis growers against rural property owners. Will it mean tightening up restrictions on legal weed?

  • c/o Dr Jollys

In 2014, Oregon voters approved Measure 91 to legalize recreational marijuana, with 56 percent statewide support. Deschutes County was closer, at only 51.9 percent.

Break that down even further and an urban-rural divide emerges. In Bend, Redmond and Sisters—the county's three incorporated cities—55 percent supported legalization. In the unincorporated, rural parts of the county, only 47 percent supported legalization. Now rural neighbors say their worst fears have become reality. Each city sets its own rules for marijuana and the county sets rules for the remaining, mostly rural, areas.

"The people in the cities want the marijuana, but they wanted it grown in the rural areas. The people in the rural areas who didn't want it are feeling the impacts," said Liz Lotochinski, a member of a newly formed group opposing marijuana operations in the rural county.

The Sheriff's take

One of the most visible and strident crusaders against cannabis is Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson. "My decision's easy," he said at a recent county work session on marijuana policy. "It's always easy when you're wearing a uniform. Marijuana is against federal law; so are marijuana grows. No state can legalize such a thing. It's absolutely against the law and not allowed."

But Nelson has other issues with marijuana, too. He said cultivation threatens livability in the county and negatively affects property values. He said residents are afraid to stand up to the industry, and his office has received complaints about statements made to "vulnerable citizens" who attend public meetings.

"If our office is made aware of it, we will absolutely take care of business. There's a general fear out there that if you speak your mind, you can expect some retaliation," he said. "There needs to be no comments to any neighbors that are present at these meetings speaking their minds."

Industry representatives and growers have no business trying to reassure neighbors that everything will work out, according to Nelson. Efforts to squash free speech and productive dialogue between neighbors and marijuana growers aside, the sheriff has one clear message for the county, "I am worried. I see an opportunity to stop this here, and I would encourage those [cannabis production] applications to be denied.

Neighbor concerns

The sheriff is not the only person worried and afraid. Some county residents have formed Preserve Deschutes County to oppose marijuana farms. "Allowing marijuana grow operations in our rural neighborhoods is a threat to the community's safety, property values, water stability and way of life," its website states.

"We see all sorts of interesting people out in the neighborhood, and it gives us concern," said Sam Davis, a member of the group who lives near a rural cannabis grow. "The security they should have to protect it from the public, and the public from it, isn't there."

Lotochinski, also part of Preserve Deschutes County, said: "Individual neighbors don't want to complain." She noted that "no other crop requires posted 'No Trespassing' signs and cameras."

The state requires 24-hour surveillance of marijuana production sites. Security and safety aren't neighbors' only concerns, though. They also talk about the effects on quality of life and the environment. They point to lights shining at night, unpleasant odors, noise and water disruption.

Dave Fox, who lives in Alfalfa, said six neighbors have had to drill their wells deeper since a large cannabis grow opened nearby about a year ago. Although a direct link is difficult to prove, he said there hadn't been that many drills in the previous decade.

Opponents of rural grows also wonder why the state and county are allowing more cannabis production when U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams claims the state is overproducing by a large margin and shipping marijuana to other states illegally.

"We already have an overabundance of marijuana. Do we need one more grow?" Lotochinski asked.

"Maybe we should freeze grows at this point," Davis added.

Fox and many other opponents say "industrial" cannabis operations are incompatible with rural, agricultural communities. They run afoul of the spirit, if not the letter, of Oregon's land-use law.

"The growers want to use land that has been used for farming and livestock for something that doesn't need land," Fox said. "They don't need dirt. They just need space and water."

A War on Weed? The industry organizes

Clifton Cannabis Law, a Bend law firm specializing in supporting the marijuana industry, calls Sheriff Nelson's approach to the industry a "war on the weed business." Jennifer Clifton, founder of the firm, is also a founding member of a new industry group called Celebrate Cannabis.

"The economic base of our region is constantly evolving from its roots in timber to real estate development to health care to craft beer to tech to outdoor recreation to food and beverage," Clifton said. "Now it's time for legal cannabis to finally have a seat at the table in Central Oregon when it comes to both perceptions and regulations that affect our industry."

Celebrate Cannabis will advocate for the industry and focus on education efforts to support responsible and legal use, and cultivation.

County officials and industry representatives point out that county rules already address most neighbor concerns. For example, the county requires growers to install air ventilation systems that prevent odors from escaping and ensure that grow lights aren't visible outside from 7 pm to 7 am. The state mandates background checks on all employees.

"A lot of those fears are based in a little bit of fantasy and a little bit of general disdain for what they perceive the marijuana culture to be," said Jeremy Dickman, an attorney with Clifton Cannabis Law.

He points out that growers make a significant financial investment, sometimes millions of dollars, and aren't going to risk it over minor things. "We're not talking about the high school weed dealer setting up shop next door and inviting his friends from jail to help run it."

Former Oregon First Lady Cylvia Hayes is working with marijuana growers to minimize their environmental impact. She acknowledged that some unscrupulous growers have illegally tapped into waterways, but said there are better ways to do things.

"Cannabis done well doesn't have to be resource consumptive like that," Hayes said. "There are lots of vendors in the cannabis industry who are doing super responsible grows."

Hayes added that sound environmental practices aren't just about water. With Central Oregon's abundant sunshine and the requirement that all grows be indoors, solar power is an attractive option. Energy Trust of Oregon even offers technical services and cash incentives to licensed growers who install energy-efficient equipment.

(For more about green growing, see The Source's Leaflet magazine in this issue.)

County races to watch

Marijuana could become an issue in the upcoming county commission races. Commissioners Tony DeBone and Tammy Baney are up for re-election. Both are Republicans, and both face primary challengers in the May 15 election. Ed Barbeau filed against DeBone, and Patti Adair filed against Baney. No Democrats had filed a few days before the deadline.

Barbeau, who owns Pisano's Woodfired Pizza in Tumalo, says he'll bring business experience to the county commission if Republicans choose him. He gave passing mention to marijuana issues when announcing his campaign. "Federal and State decisions and inconsistency regarding cannabis and hemp continue to provide a difficult landscape for politicians," he wrote.

When asked about how he would handle applications for cannabis grows, he avoids taking a hard stand. "I'm not going to make decisions on cannabis until I have all the facts in front of me," he said.

But he doesn't think the marijuana genie can be put back in its bottle. "I don't believe it's an option for the county to opt out now," he said.

DeBone predicts marijuana will become a key issue in the campaign. "The citizens that are opposing it will be very motivated. Just a few very focused people can get other people to listen and pay attention to an issue," he said.

He said he understands neighbors' concerns, but the county must act within Oregon law. He defends commissioners' decisions as having been made in public with a great deal of input from all sides.

Adair, who lives in Sisters and chairs the county Republican Party, is less circumspect, worrying about overproduction, public safety and the effects on rural communities.

"You have all kinds of people coming in and out," she said about the grows already open in the county. "I worry about who it brings in. Really, do we want to attract those people? Mexico is having serious drug wars. It's frightening."

Given how close the vote on Measure 91 was in Deschutes County, Adair thinks commissioners should have let voters decide whether to have grows and sales in the rural county.

Tougher enforcement

Right now, the county commission is conducting a thorough review of its marijuana rules. It recently completed a series of work sessions and will continue to engage with stakeholders from all sides, according to Community Development Director Nick Lelack.

"We're threading the needle between allowing the industry to emerge and succeed while at the same time protecting the high quality of life that so many of our rural residents value and enjoy," he said.

In the years since marijuana became legal, the county has approved 30 unique grow sites, with 22 more applications pending. Only nine of the approved applicants have also received a required license from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which oversees the state marijuana issue, and can therefore legally operate.

Lelack acknowledges that the county's rules are among the most restrictive in the state. That was intentional. "Our board of commissioners wanted to get ahead of any potential changes and address those now. The theory with this program was, let's make it more restrictive at the start but still compliant with state law. If we want to amend the rules in the future, it's easier to make them less restrictive than more restrictive."

It doesn't look like things are going to get less restrictive.

Commissioners seem poised to implement a crackdown on marijuana grows. Currently, when a grower is out of compliance with development code, the county treats it like any other code violation. It notifies the owner and works with them to rectify the situation. Fines and other penalties are a last resort.

A proposed proactive approach would go looking for violators and perhaps penalize them immediately. Where every other industry gets a chance to fix its problems, cannabis would be treated with zero tolerance. The decision is up to commissioners.

"We would not change our approach without the board of county commissioners providing clear direction in a public meeting," Lelack said—so the public will get a chance to weigh in.

At least one commissioner seems to be leaning toward tough enforcement.

"I say absolutely. If you're looking for a clear direction from us today, I think we have an obligation to do that," Baney said at a recent work session.

Commissioner Phil Henderson is more tepid, but not necessarily opposed. "I like the gist of it there's immediate sanction of some kind," he said. But he worried that compliance on issues like smells and noise are very subjective and difficult to penalize without some due process.

DeBone said he favors a more proactive approach, but he wants it to focus on illegal grows.

If the county does move toward a proactive enforcement model, it would likely need to hire additional staff in the code enforcement department and maybe the sheriff's department. Paying for those positions could quickly consume the county's share of statewide marijuana sales tax revenue, which was $442,646.

Increased crime? Nope.

"I've seen no increase in crime as a result of legalization of marijuana," Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel said. He conceded, however, that he doesn't know where there are illegal grows. "We need to do better as a community at policing illegal marijuana grows. Maybe there aren't many, but I suspect there are some that we aren't detecting."

Perhaps the greatest hurdle to identifying illegal grows is Oregon's parallel systems for recreational and medical marijuana. The sheriff's office recently sent its first grow case since legalization to the district attorney, and a grand jury has returned charges.

Hummel views tough enforcement as good for the legal industry that has gone through the time, effort and expense of the extensive regulatory process. "We want to stop the criminals and protect the businesses that are doing it the right way," he said.

When law enforcement learns that someone is growing cannabis, officers can check against city, county and state licenses to see if it's a legal recreational grow. But the Oregon Health Authority licenses medical grows, and state law prevents the agency from being very forthcoming with records. In such cases, law enforcement is often stymied.

Hummel and Sheriff Nelson signed a joint letter to the OHA recently, asking it to provide a list of all registered medical grow sites in the county, updated at least quarterly. Generating and providing such a list likely would require a change to state law.

Dialogue and compromise

Given that marijuana is almost certainly here to stay, absent a federal crackdown, many people interviewed for this story hoped for better dialogue and compromise—at least the ones who could see past their desire for an outright ban on rural grows.

"It's not just marijuana," the county's Lelack said. "People care passionately about where they live, and even for minor applications, we're seeing challenges. People don't want to see changes."

Fox, the Alfalfa resident, said he doesn't personally oppose marijuana, only disruption of his rural community. "There's so much we don't know about what the growers are doing, and the growers don't know about how they are affecting people," he said. "This is just some of the growing pains we go through when we introduce something new to the culture. There's going to be some bumps in the road while we figure out how to make it all work for everyone."

Editor's Note: The original version of this story misstated the percentage of people who supported legalization in the rural parts of the county. The correct figure: 47 percent supported legalization, not 47 percent opposed. We regret the error.

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