By Pat Caldwell
An Oregon Senate bill that pushes the issue of local versus state control to center stage will face the first of a number of legislative hurdles next week during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The legislation andndash; Senate bill 1531 andndash; is designed to grant cities and counties throughout Oregon the power to limit medical marijuana facilities, often dubbed dispensaries.
Senate Bill 1531 is sponsored by Sen. Bill Hansell (R-Athena) and Sen. Rod Monroe (D-Portland) and conveys special significance locally as the Baker City Council is now debating the viability of restricting marijuana dispensaries in town.
So far no one has proposed to open such a business here.
Oregon Law compels the Oregon Health Authority to create and then execute a program to register medical marijuana facilities/dispensaries. Under the law, such facilities must be situated on property zoned commercial, industrial or agriculture.
The law goes into effect March 1.
The bill would permit the "governing body of city or county to restrict or regulate operation of medical marijuana facility, prohibit registration of medical marijuana facility, or regulate, restrict or prohibit storing or dispensing of marijuana by facility legally authorities to store or dispense marijuana."
Hansell said Wednesday that the legislation is more about local control than the legality of marijuana dispensaries.
"It is not a pro or con marijuana bill. It (marijuana legalization) is kind of the white elephant in the living room and no one has poked it," he said.
Hansell also said the bill is needed because legal questions are emerging around the dispensaries issue.
"We are beginning to see conflicting legal opinions," he said.
The two theories at odds in the marijuana dispensary legislative skirmish revolve around federal, state and local control and which level of government has the authority to ban such facilities.
Under federal law, marijuana is illegal. Yet in Oregon the medical marijuana dispensaries can be open for business after the first of March. Whether local communities can legally ban such facilities is, to some extent, still an open question.
That's because there is no clear guidance from the Legislature regarding local cities having the legal authority to ban dispensaries.
That is where Hansell's bill will play a pivotal role if it gains passage, Baker County District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff said.
"If it passes it would be great," Shirtcliff said.
Shirtcliff presented an in-depth briefing to the Baker City Council during its Jan. 28 session. The briefing outlined a number of factors regarding why a local medical marijuana dispensary would be a bad idea.
Although no one has proposed to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Baker City, Shirtcliff said the City Council should create and then pass an ordinance forbidding such facilities in town.
"The point is there is a good-faith legal case to support this," he said.
City Councilor Kim Mosier said she supports of an ordinance to interdict medical marijuana dispensaries in Baker City.
"I think the message we got (from Shirtcliff at the Jan. 28 meeting) was pretty clear. It has a negative impact on crime rates, addiction rates, to kids having access to marijuana," Mosier said.
At the Jan. 28 session, the council directed City Manager Mike Kee to oversee a project to create two ordinances to prohibit marijuana dispensaries in Baker City.
Kee said Wednesday that two proposals are nearly ready and will be presented to the City Council at its next meeting, Feb. 11.
"We're putting together one prohibiting facilities and one that requires businesses in Baker City to have a business license where they have to be in compliance with federal law," he said.,
Mosier, who is a lawyer, also mentioned the legal void surrounding the issue.
"I think we don't have any direction from the courts whether communities can (ban marijuana dispensaries). We don't have any clear legal opinion on that," she said.
Mosier said that lack of legal guidance is critical.
"Where there isn't a clear direction now, I think we are free to do this. I see no problem asserting our options as a community," she said.
Hansell's bill appears to be a solid vehicle for clarifying the rules for local communities regarding restrictions of marijuana dispensaries and he said the legislation is popular with many."I think it has a very good chance. We have strong support," he said.
The Association of Oregon Counties and the League of Oregon Cities are on record in support of Hansell's bill.