Stephen Hamway
The Bulletin

Significant changes to Deschutes County’s approach toward marijuana, including a possible pause on accepting recreational applications, may be on the horizon as the county revisits its existing policy.

During a work session Monday, the county’s community development department presented its assessment of county marijuana rules to the Deschutes County Commission. The presentation — which was punctuated by spirited interjections from Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson, a vocal opponent of Oregon’s approach to recreational cannabis — was intended to spearhead discussion on potential changes to county rules.

During the meeting, Commissioner Tammy Baney recommended that the commission discuss a variety of topics, from adding more code-enforcement personnel to considering a full pause on processing marijuana-related applications, at a meeting April 11.

The goal, Baney said, is to cut down on the illegal activity she and many rural residents believe is occurring outside of the legal, permitted grows.

“Right now, we are not able to enforce what we currently have on the books,” Baney said after the meeting. “I’d prefer to not continue bringing in applications at the same time that we’re looking at the regulations.”

About a half-hour into the meeting, Nelson walked to a podium and spoke into a microphone about the need for more enforcement, and a crackdown on growers who are out of compliance with the county’s rules.

“There can be zero room for tolerance on this,” Nelson said.

After an initial opt-out, Deschutes County implemented its rules for marijuana production, processing, retail and wholesale operations outside urban growth boundaries in fall 2016. Matt Martin, senior planner for Deschutes County, said the rules were always meant to be revisited once the community development department has more information about the newly legal industry, which is also regulated by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

The assessment discussed Monday included the results from a series of meetings with state and local agencies, several focus groups, an online survey and a round of annual inspections. The assessment concluded that many of the problems neighbors are experiencing stem from personal, medical or black-market marijuana operations, which aren’t subject to Deschutes County’s land use rules.

Zechariah Heck, associate planner for the county, participated in the inspections and concluded that most growers who have gone through the county’s land use process are making an effort to follow the rules.

“It seems like it would be really high-risk to bamboozle the county,” Heck said.

While Baney acknowledged that the 14 marijuana-related businesses currently operating in the rural county are largely operating within the law, she was concerned about the element that isn’t following the county’s rules. Infractions can include everything from code violations like unmitigated odor and lights to illegal black-market sales, which Baney said the state isn’t able to keep up with.

“We kind of know that Deschutes County and the state of Oregon doesn’t have the resources,” Baney said.

Baney proposed adding two short-term employees, including one that would be partially funded by the city of Bend, to help with code enforcement throughout the county. Baney also wants the Oregon Water Resources Department to look at water impacts from marijuana operations in the county, including drawing down wells. She added that she hopes to see legislation allowing law enforcement to know the locations of medical growers, which are currently protected under state law.

Baney spoke with the county’s legal experts about pursuing a pause on processing recreational marijuana applications until the county gets a better handle on medical and unauthorized grows. Possible avenues include capping the number of marijuana production facilities in the county, or adding restrictions on the density of operations.

“I would like to see us find a way to not accept more applications while we try to get our arms around this,” Baney said.

David Doyle, legal counsel for Deschutes County, said the county likely doesn’t have the ability to enforce a legal moratorium, and capping the number or density of applications may prompt a state-level legal challenge the county could lose.

Commissioner Phil Henderson expressed concerns about imposing restrictions on the number of grows but added that he wants to look at aspects of the county’s existing rules, including lighting regulations and the fee structure for applicants, in more detail. Commissioner Tony DeBone said he’d prefer to focus on refining the existing regulations.

“These are the lawfully established OLCC partners in our community growing a crop as defined by the state of Oregon in our community,” DeBone said. “My point is, that is different than the bad actors out there.”

The County Commission is planning to meet April 11 to discuss these possible conditions in more detail.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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