Deschutes County mulls pause on marijuana applications

A crop of marijuana grows under lights at a farm in Tumalo in 2016. (Bulletin file photo)

Deschutes County’s effort to revisit and refine its regulations for growing marijuana could put it at odds with a couple state agencies.

Near the end of last week, the Deschutes County Commission sent letters to the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Water Resources Department, requesting more information about their attempts to regulate the controversial crop.

During a work session last week, Commissioner Tammy Baney stressed the need to push back on state agencies for what the county feels is a lack of cooperation, which leaves the county dealing with a variety of impacts from marijuana, particularly from those growing it for medical patients.

“To make us jump through hoops and waste valuable resources in order to know what’s happening in our own community is unacceptable,” Baney said during the meeting.

The letter to OHA asks the state agency to outline its process for confirming that existing medical marijuana growing operations are following the rules, as well as its approach to determining that shuttered operations don’t continue to operate after they’re no longer registered. The letter to the state water resources department asks the agency to evaluate groundwater impacts in Tumalo and Alfalfa — two parts of the rural county that have seen the lion’s share of licensed marijuana growing operations — to determine if the new industry is affecting wells and aquifers in the area.

“Many suspect water is being misappropriated,” the second letter reads.

Peter Gutowsky, planning manager for Deschutes County, said the commission has heard testimony from rural residents that medical marijuana growing operations, which comprise the vast majority of legal marijuana operations in the county, are not well-regulated and may be impacting the county’s water table. With that in mind, the county is interested in getting more information about various aspects of the industry.

“I think the board is asking for greater involvement by both agencies,” Gutowsky said.

While recreational marijuana is relatively new to Oregon and Deschutes County, the state’s medical program, administered by the Oregon Health Authority, has been in place for two decades. During a February presentation, OHA officials noted that there were still 984 licensed medical marijuana growing operations in Deschutes County. However, their whereabouts are largely protected by state medical laws, making it difficult for law and code enforcement to crack down on noncompliant growers, according to Gutowsky.

The county commission began revisiting its existing recreation marijuana regulations last fall, and staffers ultimately determined that many of the licensed recreational growers were following the rules.

The move by the county commission comes on the heels of a separate letter from Deschutes County law enforcement to OHA. That letter, sent by Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson and District Attorney John Hummel on April 5, pushed back on the state agency’s assertion that providing addresses of medical marijuana would run afoul of Oregon law. Attached to the April letter was a thumb drive with the addresses of more than 60,000 Deschutes County properties, with a request to identify which of those have medical marijuana facilities.

Two weeks after the letter was sent, OHA director Patrick Allen responded by saying that the agency will not grant the request until the state’s attorney general evaluates it. Jonathan Modie, OHA spokesman, said that review is still ongoing.

For now, the response from both agencies remains up in the air. Representatives from both agencies confirmed they received the letters earlier this week but said they will need more time to evaluate the content.

Racquel Rancier, senior policy coordinator for OWRD, cited a 2013 report noting that climate change, groundwater pumping and leaky canals — rather than marijuana — have the most significant impact on groundwater levels in the Deschutes Basin.

“Given this information, groundwater pumping for marijuana likely represents a small fraction of all groundwater pumped in the Deschutes Basin,” Rancier wrote in an email.

Both letters ask for a response by June 4, and Modie said OHA would make an effort to comply with that deadline.

—Reporter: 541-617-7818,

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