Dispensary law no cause for alarm

State officials are developing rules that should resolve county leaders' concerns

Jackson County commissioners should breathe deeply and relax a little about a new law legalizing medical marijuana dispensaries. Their fears about an instant crime wave are probably overblown.

Gob. John Kitzhaber signed House Bill 3460 on Aug. 14. The legislation corrects a flaw in the state's medical marijuana system that made it difficult for some patients to obtain the marijuana they needed to treat the symptoms of serious illness and disability.

Oregon's law allows holders of medical marijuana cards to possess and use marijuana. It also allows them to grow it themselves or arrange for a licensed grower to produce it on their behalf. But they were prohibited from purchasing marijuana, and the statute made no provision for dispensaries to operate within the law.

HB 3460 will change that — after state officials finish drafting new administrative rules to govern the operation of dispensaries. It is those rules that have the commissioners fuming.

"Even if we wanted to put a countywide ban on this, basically, they've pre-empted us from doing that," Commissioner Doug Breidenthal said.

That's because it's a state law. County officials don't generally have the power to completely overrule state laws they don't agree with.

The other concern of Jackson County officials has to do with where the dispensaries can be situated. The new law says they must be in agricultural, industrial, commercial or mixed-use land, not within 1,000 feet of a school and not within 1,000 feet of another dispensary.

Commissioner John Rachor raised the specter of a 20,000-square-foot warehouse operating on agricultural land and the parking and traffic issues that might result. But there is nothing in the law that says counties cannot treat a proposed dispensary like any other permitted land use, requiring reasonable steps to mitigate traffic concerns and ensure adequate parking. In any case, it's difficult to imagine a dispensary, which can cater only to medical marijuana cardholders under the law, needing to be anywhere near that large.

The League of Oregon Cities endorsed the bill, noting that it allows municipalities to enact their own ordinances regarding dispensaries, so it's hard to see how counties would not be allowed to do the same.

As for fears of a crime wave, we think they're exaggerated. While it's true that the state's medical marijuana system has been used by some as a smoke screen to obscure black-market sales of the drug elsewhere in the country, it should be possible for state rules to prevent any increase in crime as a result of new dispensaries.

Besides, dispensaries will operate in the open, in full view of law enforcement, unlike the private networks of growers and "caregivers" under the existing law. The new law allows the Oregon Health Authority to inspect the dispensaries "at any reasonable time," and to audit their financial records.

The new law does not take effect until March to allow time to develop rules. If past experience is any guide, there will be plenty of opportunity for this county and others to participate in that process.

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