Deschutes County commissioners are considering a prohibition on marijuana that would go before for voters for a final decision.
Voters would essentially shut the door to anyone hoping to start a new marijuana business, but address the concerns of residents who feel the growing industry is disrupting their way of life and curb the amount of county staff time spent on land use appeals. While other Oregon counties have opted out of permitting marijuana when it was legalized in 2014, it appears Deschutes County would be the first to attempt to reverse its decision to allow it.
The prohibition is not expected to affect existing marijuana businesses.
On Wednesday, the Deschutes County Commission plans to discuss a recently-adopted set of rules — often referred to as time, place and manner regulations — that govern where and how marijuana production can occur in rural parts of the county. The rule changes, adopted in 2018, were appealed by the Deschutes County Farm Bureau and representatives of the marijuana industry, who claim they are unconstitutional.
In general, the commission could choose to keep, adjust or get rid of the amendments. But several residents last month asked the commission to consider another option: opt out of permitting new marijuana ventures entirely by asking the voters to decide the issue in the 2020 election.
No commissioner on Tuesday would comment on the extent to which the opt-out option would be discussed on Wednesday. But Commissioner Tony DeBone said the topic would likely come up.
“We got a lot of specific public input and testimony on time, place and manner regulations. … A lot of testimony is asking us to specifically to opt out,” DeBone said. “We have a binder full of that. So yes, it will come up (during deliberations) in response to that testimony.”
The discussion to opt out comes after years of land use appeals and complaints from rural residents who say odor and other aspects of marijuana farms affect their quality of life. Deschutes County has often been in the spotlight for implementing some of the strictest regulations in the state, with this legislative session producing a bill designed to take away the county’s unique program to charge system development fees on weed growing operations.
While Commissioner Phil Henderson said he “has come to no conclusions” concerning an opt- out, the bill served as a warning shot for Henderson, who sees a growing effort in the state Legislature to limit how a county can regulate the marijuana industry.
“Should we be spending so much time trying to do a good job if at any time the Legislature will take away everything we’ve done?” Henderson said. “That’s the tipping point we have come to.”
If the county votes to opt out of allowing marijuana businesses, a moratorium on all new land use applications related to marijuana would begin. The decision as to whether new marijuana growing or retail operations should be allowed in unincorporated Deschutes County would then be referred to the voters in November of 2020.
The impacts for those with pending applications with the county during the moratorium are expected to be minimal, Doyle said. Even with approval from the county, someone would still need to get a permit from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which stopped accepting applications last June to handle a monthslong backlog.
Decisions, such as whether existing businesses can continue to operate, would be up to the discretion of how the board defined the issue, said Matthew Van Sickle, spokesman for the OLCC.
But from the perspective of the county, existing cannabis outfits would be allowed to operate regardless of whether residents decided to prohibit future marijuana businesses, said County Counsel David Doyle.
“We can’t un-ring that bell — an approval is an approval,” Doyle said. “Opting out means not processing any more of these (applications) until we get a thumbs up or thumbs down from the voters.”
But if residents do vote to prohibit new operations, it is unclear whether the county would still be able to receive marijuana tax revenue from existing businesses, Doyle said. A statute in the original bill that legalized marijuana across the state precludes counties that “opt out” from receiving marijuana tax dollars.
“(The state legislature) didn’t anticipate a jurisdiction … being in for three or four years, and then going out,” Doyle said.
The tax, which brings in about $300,000 a year, is slated to pay for a new deputy with the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office and an employee in the health services department, according to budget documents.
But an opt-out could also save the county time and money spent on land use appeals that are filed against marijuana farms and shops. Since it was first legalized, marijuana has cost Deschutes County close to $5,000 to handle 17 appeals, according to county public records. Four of those were subsequently appealed to the Land Use Board of Appeals.
Henderson said the costs associated with litigation are hard to measure.
“That’s quite a bit of staff time,” Henderson said. “It’s clear to commissioners that these appeals and applications have taken a lot of resources for the county, … but on the other hand these regulations have been drawn up not only to protect the growers, but the neighbors in the rural county.”
But after hearing the appeals from rural residents, Commissioner Patti Adair said she felt going back to the people for a vote is “the perfect match.”
“They clearly have seen what has gone on with it,” Adair said. “A lot of farms have been impacted, … and the rural area didn’t vote for marijuana to begin with, and they’re the ones feeling the impact.”
— Reporter: 541-633-2160, firstname.lastname@example.org