ONTARIO — Three years ago, Ontario became the first city in Malheur County to overturn the ban of cannabis sales. The city has reaped the benefits since, with almost $2.6 million in revenues expected for the last fiscal year.
“The sky didn't fall and the money is rolling in,” said Russ Belville, a longtime marijuana advocate more informally known as “Radical Russ.”
Belville and Lori Duckworth now have their sights set on bringing marijuana to the rest of Malheur County.
The duo filed a prospective petition on June 8 titled “Legalize Malheur” that would repeal the ban on commercial production, processing, distribution, and sale of marijuana to adults 21 years of age or older.
The repeal would only affect the unincorporated areas of Malheur County, and cities would still need to amend ordinances for anything to change within city limits.
Duckworth was instrumental in overturning Ontario’s ban on dispensaries in 2018 while Belville has been involved in marijuana activism, both nationally and locally, since 2005. Both have spent time working for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Ontario voters voted 1,904 to 1,450 in 2018 to allow the sale of marijuana within city limits.
“There’s always a fear of change. But almost three years of dispensaries, nine of them now in Ontario, and a regular monthly haul of 9 million dollars and $300,000 going to the city,” Belville said. “Now it’s time for the rest of the county to take advantage.”
The initiative’s prospective petition says the current ban “represents an ongoing loss of potential tax revenue and improved economy and job prospects for the people,” in unincorporated Malheur County.
If passed, Belville and Duckworth don’t anticipate dispensaries to start opening all over the rural parts of the county.
“The focus is on the overall county and less on the dispensary angle and more on the farmer angle. Farmers would be able to start growing hemp and marijuana,” said Belville.
In 2020, 8 million pounds of marijuana were grown across Oregon by OLCC-licensed growers.
The petition still has a long way to go as Malheur County Clerk Gayle Trotter said she still needs to approve the group's cover and signature sheets before they can begin collecting signatures.
Belville and Duckworth plan to turn the sheets in next week and then begin collecting the 539 signatures needed to put the measure before voters on the November 2022 ballot.
The duo said they anticipate the overall size of Malheur County being an issue when collecting signatures.
“Malheur County is just so vast so you can't really do door to door. You can go to the city, but those aren't the signatures we need,” said Duckworth.
To combat this, the duo plans on using yard signs and billboards to get the word out about the initiative. For people in very rural areas, the duo plans to utilize “remote petition signatures” where people can mail in their signatures.
If they can gather the 539 signatures, Belville and Duckworth are positive about the initiative passing.
“It’s not going to be a landslide, but we are optimistic,” said Belville.