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Jackson County proposes wide pot buffers

The Jackson County Planning Department is recommending 2,500-foot buffer zones between medical marijuana dispensaries — a distance that could cut the number of dispensaries allowed under state law by about half.

State law requires dispensaries to be 1,000 feet from each other and schools.

Residents afraid of marijuana's influence on children applauded the county's proposed 2,500-foot rule, while dispensary owners and people who want to get in on the medical marijuana industry said it would severely limit the number of outlets.

The Jackson County Planning Commission Thursday took almost four hours of public testimony on proposed county regulations. The commission will accept more testimony at its 9 a.m. March 12 meeting in the Jackson County Courthouse auditorium, 10 S. Oakdale Ave., Medford.

Commissioners will make their own recommendations to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, which will have the final say on the issue. Officials hope to have regulations in place before a county moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries is lifted on May 1.

Jackson County Development Services Director Kelly Madding recommended dispensaries in unincorporated parts of the county be at least 2,500 feet apart. The county is allowed to adopt regulations that are more stringent than state standards.

With the state's 1,000-foot buffer between dispensaries, Madding said, about 10 could open on a two-mile stretch of Highway 62 between White City and Medford. Others could open along Highway 99 between Medford and Phoenix and between Phoenix and Talent. A 2,500-foot buffer would half that number, she said.

"We're not saying they can't occur. We're saying this is the spacing we think is appropriate for our county," Madding said.

Eagle Point parent Nita Lundberg said she would like to see no medical marijuana dispensaries, or if they are allowed, long distances between them.

"I would encourage you to use maximum distances recommended by staff," Lundberg urged planning commissioners.

But Medford restaurant owner Brent Kenyon, who has worked for years in the medical marijuana industry, said locations for dispensaries are already limited because so many property owners are unwilling to rent, lease or sell property to people hoping to open such operations.

"The 2,500-foot rule is excessive," Kenyon said.

Medical marijuana patient Adam Lipsky, who hopes to open a dispensary, said he has talked to 30 landowners and found zero possibilities for a dispensary so far. He said he suffers from a pinched nerve in his back and would like to help other people access marijuana as a medicine.

"This is not just potheads trying to get rich — and that's what we're being treated like," Lipsky said.

The county Planning Department is recommending dispensaries be allowed to operate from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with no drive-thrus permitted. Medical marijuana remnants and byproducts could not be placed in outdoor garbage cans.

In addition, the department recommends dispensaries be allowed only in general commercial zones. Zones that would be off limits include industrial, exclusive farm use and commercial I-5 interchange lands.

"We have quite a bit of commercial land. Not as much as in a city, but we do have an adequate supply of commercial land," Madding said, adding the county's supply of industrial land — which is needed to attract desirable industries — is limited.

Madding said Jackson County Sheriff Corey Falls is concerned about allowing dispensaries near interchanges because they are largely cash-only operations, and criminals could dart on and off I-5. There is also concern about allowing dispensaries in remote areas such as Ruch, Applegate, Sams Valley and Pinehurst, where response times are long.

Many banks refuse to do business with marijuana operations because marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

Peter Gross, chief executive officer of the Green Valley Wellness dispensary in Talent, said a bank in Portland is now working with the marijuana industry and providing services, including checking accounts. Many transactions are still all-cash, but Gross said his dispensary has a security system with an alarm and locks up product at night in safes bolted to the floor.

Jackson County currently has 8,200 Oregon Medical Marijuana Program patients, the second-highest number in the state, Madding said.

Planning commissioners wondered about the right number of dispensaries needed to accommodate those patients — and about impacts that will come when recreational marijuana becomes legal under state law.

In November 2014, Oregon voters approved Measure 91, which legalizes personal use and possession of recreational marijuana effective July 1.

The measure requires the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to begin accepting licenses for recreational marijuana retail stores by Jan. 4, 2016.

Dispensary owners testifying at Thursday's meeting said they expect many merged medical and recreational marijuana outlets in the future. Medical marijuana dispensaries officially cannot make a profit, although they can pay owners and employees. Recreational marijuana retail stores can make a profit.

The OLCC is in the process of gathering public input and creating regulations for recreational marijuana sales.

With those laws still to be determined, Jackson County Planning Commissioner Joel Ockunzzi wondered whether Jackson County medical marijuana rules would later become obsolete.

"With recreational marijuana coming, are we bringing a dead date to the dance?" he asked.

Marijuana industry consultant Michael Horner, who favors 1,000-foot minimum distances between dispensaries, said separate medical and recreational marijuana regulations could be useful. Some dispensaries will likely choose to remain medical marijuana only, because they are driven by compassion, not a desire to make money.

Medical marijuana patients may also continue going to dispensaries to avoid state taxes on recreational marijuana, he said.

Measure 91 sets state taxes on recreational marijuana, but not medical marijuana.

Although the measure bars local jurisdictions from adopting taxes, many cities and counties raced to adopt a mix of recreational and medical marijuana taxes in hopes those may be allowed. The taxing conflicts are likely to be settled via court rulings.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.