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Politics Before Patients? 

Deschutes County places one-year ban on medical marijuana dispensaries

On Monday morning, area residents interested in the future of medical marijuana jammed inside a Deschutes County meeting room to listen and testify at a county commissioners business meeting. But pot wasn't the only item on the agenda.

"What a turnout for the road department today," joked the day's first presenter, who was speaking about county infrastructure improvements.

But roads were not what the gathered crowd was there for—they wanted to talk pot.

During the recent legislative session, Oregon representatives passed a bill which allows cities and towns to enforce restrictive regulations on medical marijuana dispensaries—and, Deschutes County was one of the first municipalities to consider whether to approve a moratorium on the local sale of medical marijuana.

Most of the people assembled on Monday were there to voice opposition to any restrictions, but after nearly one and a half hours of passionate testimony, the three commissioners unanimously voted to place an emergency one-year ban on medical marijuana dispensaries that fall within the county's jurisdiction. That means existing dispensaries within Bend's city limits will be unaffected and will continue to operate as they have been (city laws trump county laws)—but no dispensaries in rural or unincorporated areas will be allowed to operate until at least 2015.

At the heart of the local issue, though, is access. On one side are the county commissioners who, curiously, all voiced support for medical marijuana, but stopped just short of improving availability to patients. On the other side are pro-pot advocates who were hoping for greater access to the medicine they feel they need.

"I smoke it daily to relieve pain," said Bend resident Chris Worsley, an Oregon Medical Marijuana Program cardholder who was seriously injured years ago in a local skiing accident. "Patients like me, we need safe access to our medication."

Jo Zachary, another medical marijuana patient, agreed.

"It's keeping me alive," said Zachary, who suffers from epilepsy in the wake of a coma that nearly killed her. Zachary made the distinction between cannabidiol (CBD), the non- psychoactive component of marijuana that she benefits from, and the oft-vilified tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the cannabis plant's primary psychoactive component. "The research that's been coming out in the last year is amazing," she added.

But county commissioner Alan Unger saw the issue differently.

"Right now, if you want to access this drug, there are plenty of places where you can do it," Unger said, ostensibly referring to Bend-based dispensaries. "People have access today—we're not taking access away."

Commissioner Tammy Baney made a similar point.

"There is a necessity and value in medicinal marijuana," Baney said. She went on to say, however, that rural areas are not where medicine should be issued. Stores should sell milk, not pot, she added. "I'd like to see cities take this on."

Others, like Jessica Jacks, the prevention coordinator for Deschutes County, also spoke out against increased access to medical marijuana dispensaries. Jacks attempted to correlate increased access with increased youth abuse.

But Jeremy Kwit, owner of Bend dispensary Bloom Well, while sympathetic, took issue with Jacks' point and cited an American Academy of Pediatrics study which found the opposite to be true.

"Overall, adolescent use of marijuana has declined significantly since the passage of medical marijuana laws," the study concluded. Kwit also stressed the many regulations that dispensaries like his must subscribe to—extensive security systems, rigorous product testing and strict location laws (dispensaries may not be located within 1,000 feet of a school).

As of Jan. 1, there were more than 60,000 Oregon Medical Marijuana Program patients, according to the Oregon Health Authority. The majority of those patients are suffering from "severe pain." And of the 281 dispensaries already registered with the state, 16 applications from Deschutes County were filed.

Medical marijuana advocates did win one small victory Monday. The language adopted and approved by the commissioners is less prohibitive than that of the earlier version, which would have restricted the operation of any marijuana business. That includes growers. The new language, approved on Monday, limits the one-year restriction to dispensaries only. The temporary prohibition, meant to give commissioners more time to review the issue, will be lifted on May 1, 2015.

Still, Kwit said, he will continue to fight for patient rights.

"Prohibition policies are based on fear and ignorance, and that's terrible," said Kwit. "It puts politics before patients."

Deschutes County Medical Cannabis Stakeholders Meeting

6-7:30pm Tuesday, April 1

Environmental Center, 16 NW Kansas Ave.

Free and open to all

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