While recreational marijuana has stolen a lot of the attention in Deschutes County, many of the county’s monitoring and enforcement challenges stem from a program that existed for 20 years but operates largely outside of the public eye.

On Wednesday, the Deschutes County Commission met with Chris Westfall, compliance unit manager for the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, operated by the Oregon Health Authority.

The meeting was part of the commission’s effort to meet with state and local agencies that deal with different aspects of cannabis oversight.

The commission initially scheduled four meetings, the last of which was held on Jan. 29. However, Commissioner Phil Henderson said he and other commissioners wanted more information on medical marijuana greenhouses in Deschutes County.

The program has proven difficult to monitor, given the sheer number of marijuana operations in Deschutes County and the fact that they’re protected by state and federal privacy regulations.

“The medical side has been a real locked box for us,” added Commissioner Tammy Baney.

Oregon legalized medical marijuana in the 1990s, and began registering medical marijuana patients in 1998. However, Westfall said the state did not permit dispensaries until much later, as patients had to either grow their own marijuana or find someone else to grow it on their behalf prior to the arrival of dispensaries.

While the number of medical facilities and patients has dropped significantly since recreational marijuana was legalized in 2014, Westfall added that there are still 984 licensed medical marijuana facilities in Deschutes County, ranging from small personal grows to more sophisticated greenhouses. By comparison, just 56 licensed recreational marijuana-related businesses operate in the county, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

However, HIPAA ensures that there are strict rules protecting the location of medical facilities, which can make it a challenge for law enforcement officers to deal with growers who aren’t following the rules.

Westfall said OHA cannot tell local law enforcement where individual greenhouses are located, though the agency can confirm that there’s a medical marijuana operation on a specific property if asked directly.

Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel, who sat on the panel alongside Capt. Paul Garrison of the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office, criticized the rules, saying not having access to a list of medical growers hamstrings local law enforcement, making it difficult for them to crack down on bad actors.

“What I’ve experienced the last few years, and what I’ve heard today, causes me concern,” Hummel said.

OHA requires growers to report transfers of marijuana as well as their inventory monthly, and Westfall said they’re subject to an initial inspection as well as annual inspections after being registered. However, the agency’s current rules only require inspections on facilities with more than 12 plants or those where plants are transferred off-site, meaning that only about 3,700 of the 20,000 medical growers in the state are subject to inspection.

Additionally, Westfall said the agency has only five inspectors for the state, meaning that some growers who qualify are not inspected annually.

Inspections for grow sites began in 2016, and Westfall said the agency has yet to inspect one in Deschutes County.

“We’re not visiting 3,700 (sites) a year,” Westfall said.

Going forward, the county commissioners will collect the information from the five meetings with local and state officials to evaluate their current code.

Matt Martin, senior planner for Deschutes County, didn’t rule out the possibility of more meetings, but Henderson said the commissioners would begin their evaluation process soon.

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

Editor’s note: This article has been clarified to better reflect the type of legal protections Oregon Medical Marijuana Program growers have.