Written for The Argus Observer. Published on July 17, 2015.
In one meeting and without the full Council present, the Ontario City Council at its Thursday work session made the decision to ban all marijuana dispensaries within city limits. The swift work was made under an emergency resolution after public comment was heard.
Between 80 and 100 citizens of Ontario, surrounding Oregon areas, and of Payette and Washington County attended the meeting. Members of law enforcement, two recreational dispensary owners from Spokane, Washington, and Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, were also there.
The group filled the entire Council Chambers, and many were forced to stand in the hallway while they took turns making comments to the City Council.
Councilor Larry Tuttle was not at the meeting.“What makes this easy for me is, my opinion on this, it’s the same as the voters’ opinion,” said Councilor Norm Crume. “It’s the best thing for our community, for our community leaders, and it thrills me to say that we are in lock step on this.”
Crume was the one to make the first motion after public comment. The motion was to approve a prohibition on medical and recreational marijuana processing sites, dispensaries, producers, processors, wholesalers and retailers within Ontario.
According to the Ontario resolution, the ordinance “does not apply to the personal possession or cultivation of recreational marijuana.” It also does not ban “the use or cultivation of medical marijuana by valid Oregon card holders and their designated growers.”
Councilor Tessa Winebarger made the second on the motion and the other three councilors in attendance, as well as Mayor Ron Verini, agreed.
“I’m not going to lie to you guys, I was on the fence about this,” Winebarger said, “but listening to everyone has swayed my decision. I’m a member of the faith community and am invested in public safety, and I think this ban is going to be a good thing.”
The Council passed the new ordinance by declaring an emergency.
“The reason this is an emergency is because House Bill 3400 included a grandfather provision,” said city attorney Larry Sullivan. “The provision says you cannot ban certain dispensaries that could be grandfathered in.”
Sullivan said the requirements for a dispensary to be grandfathered in is that they have to have fulfilled the state’s requirements and completed all local land use application processes, so the dispensary is within the local land use laws.
“If you don’t declare an emergency, it will increase the likelihood that one or more dispensaries could be grandfathered in,” Sullivan told the Council on Thursday.
Under HB 3400, cities and counties are allowed to prohibit activities related to marijuana if more than 55 percent of the votes cast in a county opposed ballot Measure 91. The measure passed statewide in November, legalizing recreational marijuana July 1.
In Malheur County, 68.7 percent of votes cast during November’s general election were opposed to Measure 91. In Ontario, 63.55 percent of votes cast opposed legalizing marijuana.
Once the Council approved the ordinance on its first reading, Crume made another motion, to wave a second reading. That motion was also unanimously approved by those present and the ordinance went into effect immediately.
Prior to the vote, the City Council heard over an hour of testimony from folks both in favor of and opposed to the ban.
Those opposed to the ban were outnumbered by those who spoke out in support of the ban, but everybody got a chance to speak their piece.
The higher number of ban supporters could have been in part due to an email Ontario Police Chief Mark Alexander said he sent to several community members.
“I only sent out one email,” Alexander said. “Judith and John Kerby kind of spearheaded the rest of this whole thing.”
Ontario resident Robert Barber, who lives with spinal arthritis, said he is against the ban because it is, in his opinion, a step backward for the city. He said his doctor, who lives and practices in Idaho, told him to use marijuana for pain management instead of using narcotics.
“Ontario recognized the merits of marijuana in 1998,” Barber said. “This would be going back on good, sound judgement.”
A Bend resident, Inge Frylund, a former prosecutor, and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition spoke against the ban. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is an organization that calls for regulation instead of prohibition of drugs and alcohol.
“This ordinance is saying the adults and elected officials are going to take a hands-off approach,” Frylund said. “Marijuana is widely available and this takes away any regulation and puts the profits in the hands of the criminals.”
Christy and Tait Kapple, owners of a recreational dispensary in Spokane, Washington, also joined the conversation.
“We’re here to show you what dispensary owners look like. We don’t’ have dreadlocks, and we have college educations,” Christy said. “I urge you to put this in the hands of regulation, not in the hands of the black market.”
Tait explained their dispensary sees between 200 and 300 customers daily. They check the identification of everybody that goes through their shop and are not in support of marijuana for youths. Their dispensary complies with all of the restrictions that would have been put in place in Ontario, if the Council had voted to allow dispensaries in the city.
“We haven’t had a single crime on our site,” Tait said. “I’ve heard a lot of misinformation today and it’s important to know the facts.”
In favor of prohibition
Several running themes in the conversation from those in favor of banning dispensaries were the safety of Ontario’s children, the reputation of the town, and the extra burden they would place on law enforcement.
Many of the speakers also cited a variety of studies and mentioned a wide range of negative effects they’ve heard marijuana has on the body.
“We called [those who use marijuana] a criminal two weeks ago and we now have to call them neighbors and customers,” Ontario citizen Stephen Meyer said.”Our city needs doctors and pastors and teachers, and no one wants to come to Ontario. Marijuana isn’t helping with that.”
At their meeting, the Council received an unofficial petition from Ontario citizen, John Kerby, that contained 434 Ontario resident’s signatures stating that they are in favor of the ban. That petition has not been registered with the County Clerk and isn’t a legally recognized petition.
In addition to several community members, those who spoke in favor of the ban were Kenneth Rush from Lifeways and Doug Hezeltine representing the faith community in Ontario.
“I have a letter here with eight pastors’ signatures on it,” Hezeltine said. “We urge the council to make it as hard as possible for people to access that drug.”
Dr. Paul Gering and James Heyrend represented Ontario’s medical community.
“I practice anesthesia and I’m a pain expert,” Heyrend said. “I ask you not to listen to the lies that have been spoken here today. There are no real studies that prove marijuana helps pain. What it does is it masks the symptoms of pain.”
Nyssa Police Chef Raymond Rau, Ontario Police Chief Mark Alexander, Malheur County Sheriff’s Office emergency services investigator Lt. Rob Hunsucker, and Payette County Sheriff Chad Huff all spoke on behalf of law enforcement.
“I’ve seen first hand the destruction of alcohol and drugs,” Rau said, “and I’ve never talked to a meth or heroine addict that hasn’t used marijuana. It is a gateway drug.”
Several business owners also made statements in favor of a ban on marijuana dispensaries as well.
“I’ve had a business in Ontario for 30 years,” said Ontario citizen Doug Calhoun, owner of Calhoun Kennels on Alameda Drive. “Ontario is a troubled community and it doesn’t need any more negative aspects.”
Bentz said he’s spent the last five months in Salem, sitting in the same position as the Ontario Councilors.
“This is an evolving situation,” he said. “It’s a hard and difficult task, but the most important thing is our kids and keeping our kids safe.”