Oregon’s first-ever registry for medical marijuana dispensaries opened this Monday and has already generated hundreds of applications from prospective dispensary owners looking to start operating their new businesses under the aegis of the Oregon Health Authority.
At least one of those dispensary applications came from Hood River County, but the exact number currently isn’t being released. According to Karynn Fish, spokesperson for the OHA’s Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, one of the law’s provisions prevents the state from releasing the locations of the dispensaries as well as the identity of their owners, and if a county has too small a pool of applicants, that county’s totals won’t be released in an effort to “protect confidentiality.” However, Fish did say the number of dispensary applications in Hood River County was “more than zero and less than 10.”
Dispensaries operate by collecting marijuana or immature marijuana plants from growers and then selling that marijuana to a patient or a patient’s caregiver, provided the patient or caregiver has an OMMP card. A physician can prescribe medical marijuana to patients who are afflicted with a number of ailments, including multiple sclerosis, seizures, cancer, and HIV/AIDS. Over 60,000 people are OMMP patients in the state, with 300 in Hood River County alone.
Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, but medical marijuana has been allowed in the state of Oregon since 1998. Dispensaries, however, have always operated under a legal gray area until this week, when a law passed by the Oregon legislature and signed by Gov. John Kitzhaber last summer went into effect.
Dispensaries face regulations from the state under the new law and must be located in areas zoned commercial, industrial, mixed use, or agricultural and are not permitted within 1,000 feet of a school or another registered dispensary, or at an address registered with the OMMP as a grow site. Dispensaries must also provide evidence to the state that adequate security measures are in place to safeguard their facilities from theft attempts.
Proponents of the law say it will provide cardholders an easier way to access their medical marijuana. Previously, cardholders either had to grow their own marijuana or seek out a quasi-legal dispensary in order to get their medicine. Dispensaries then operated with the knowledge they could be shut down by the authorities at any time.
Hood River saw Columbia Gorge Alternative Medicine — a medical marijuana registry similar to the dispensaries described above — open on the Heights in 2010, but the business has apparently since closed. According to a 2010 story in the News, Bob Niebuhr, owner of the registry, informed local law enforcement at the time he was opening a medical marijuana establishment. Niebuhr reported he was assured by law enforcement that “as long as I follow the rules and guidelines and security is good, they don’t see a problem with it.”
Other than the limitations on zoning and the 1,000-foot buffer areas between schools and competing dispensaries, the law doesn’t place any restrictions on the number of dispensaries that can exist in each county or municipality. The potential for a proliferation of medicinal pot establishments has law enforcement worried about the strain it may cause on their departments.
During a medical marijuana presentation made by the Hood River County Commission on Children and Families at a County Board of Commissioners meeting last month, Sheriff Matt English was asked by County Commission Chair Ron Rivers whether the new law would create more problems in his line of work. English responded it would and added that he had already seen a rise in marijuana DUIs and “would forsee that that number would continue to go up.”
Hood River Police Department Chief Neal Holste echoed similar concerns in a separate interview, saying the legalization of dispensaries “has the potential to cause more problems.” Though dispensaries are required to implement security measures to protect their inventory, Holste worried the marijuana could still fall into the wrong hands.
“If people don’t have the licenses and they want it, they’ll get it,” he said of the dispensary marijuana.
In addition to law enforcement agencies, some municipalities in Oregon are concerned about the potential arrival of medical marijuana dispensaries to their communities and have bent the ears of their state legislators. The Oregon House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday by a 51-6 vote that allows city and county governments to ban dispensaries until May 2015. At press time, the bill, SB 1531C, was still in the Oregon Senate.
If the bill is passed, Hood River County may take the opportunity to ban dispensaries from locating inside its borders. Rivers told the News that although the county commission has yet to take any sort of action on the issue, “I got the distinct impression from my commissioners that they do intend on placing additional restrictions on local dispensaries beyond what the state mandates if the bill passes.”
At the city level, Hood River Mayor Arthur Babitz said the city council has not discussed the issue of dispensaries, nor has the subject graced a council agenda yet, but he expected that “after the legislature acts, there will be groups coming to us to request action.” He added that no [council] members have made a request to me or expressed an opinion one way or the other, so I really have no idea whether the [council] has a predisposition on this issue.”