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Could council's pot stance backfire?

Medford’s tough stance on marijuana appears to be withering as city officials worry their actions could lead to a proliferation of legal pot gardens this summer and unwittingly help create a black market for weed. 

Councilor Dick Gordon said the city likely will have to change its positions of banning medical marijuana dispensaries and taxing the production and sale of recreational pot.

“We have created an administrative nightmare that could be helping the black market,” he said. 

The city declared a permanent moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries last spring. In November, Oregon voters approved Ballot Measure 91, which makes recreational marijuana legal July 1. Adults 21 and older will be able to possess 8 ounces of dried cannabis and four plants. 

Gordon and other councilors say they worry that by making dispensaries illegal in Medford, the council may be unwittingly encouraging more backyard grows. They also are concerned city taxes could lead to more black market sales.

City Council will hold a study session on the cannabis issue at noon Thursday, March 12, in City Hall, 411 W. Eighth St., Medford.

Councilors banned dispensaries because they believed allowing marijuana sales violated their oath of office to uphold state, federal and local laws. Marijuana is still considered illegal under federal law and is classified in the same category as heroin. 

Measure 91, overwhelmingly approved in Oregon, was rejected in Medford by a vote of 14,413 to 13,708. Of the four wards in Medford, two on the west side approved the measure and two on the east side opposed it. 

Medford and other cities have been waiting to see whether the Legislature combines the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program with recreational marijuana and allows both to be sold out of the same store.

On Friday, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission unanimously urged the Legislature not to allow the sale of both recreational and medical marijuana at the same retail outlet unless both products are tracked and tested in the same manner. 

Gordon said the city will be spending the next few months trying to figure out what to do with marijuana, hoping to get more direction from the Legislature.

He said he hopes the city can come up rules that regulate the time, place and manner of marijuana sales. 

Measure 91 allows only the state to tax recreational marijuana sales. Many cities in Oregon hope the Legislature will decide to allow local taxes.

Councilor Clay Bearnson, who has a medical marijuana card, said it’s in the city’s best interest to draft a policy that is reasonable and doesn’t encourage illegal sales. 

“Passing a prohibitive measure consequently pushes it back into the black market,” he said.

Bearnson said the city likely will discuss regulations regarding backyard grows because of their potential to cause neighborhood complaints over issues such as smell.

Bearnson and other councilors have heard from legislators that it likely will take a couple of years to sort out all the issues with legalization of marijuana. 

“They agree that the prohibitive measures will just encourage the black market,” he said. 

Councilor Kevin Stine, who took office in January, supports a regulatory framework for marijuana that's similar to those for cigarettes and alcohol.

Stine, who cautiously supports marijuana legalization, said, “Even if you don’t want it, the people of Oregon have spoken, and we’re going to have it.” 

The government’s heavy-handed efforts to criminalize marijuana over the years haven't been working, he said.

Even though councilors take an oath to uphold the laws of the land, Stine said he also believes in states' rights, and he is prepared to uphold the will of the voters in Oregon. 

“Either we should be working toward a safe, regulated marijuana system, or you’re going to have the Wild West,” Stine said. 

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Medical marjuana plants grow in a backyard garden. Medford city councilors worry that banning medical marijuana dispensaries and taxing recreational pot sales might encourage more backyard gardens once pot becomes legal for adults July 1. Mail Tribune / file photo