Facilities banned until May 2015 in unincorporated areas

by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde.Days after the cities of St. Helens and Columbia City banned medical marijuana dispensaries until May 2015, Columbia County followed suit Wednesday, April 9.

The Board of County Commissioners swiftly approved an ordinance imposing a temporary moratorium on facilities that provide marijuana to approved patients, taking advantage of a new Oregon law allowing local jurisdictions to effectively “opt out” of state law permitting medical marijuana dispensaries.

“We’re not saying ‘no,’ we’re not saying ‘yes,’” said Commissioner Tony Hyde, chairman of the board. “We’re just saying, let’s give us some time to take a look at this opportunity for us to at least have some say in, you know, where these facilities are going to lie.”

Robin McIntyre, assistant legal counsel to the county, said without the moratorium the county government would have little to no way to prevent dispensaries from setting up shop in unincorporated Columbia County. State law allows medical marijuana dispensaries to operate on agricultural, commercial and industrial land with just a few restrictions; notably, they are not allowed within 1,000 feet of a school or another dispensary site.

“If ... a registered dispensary were to come in and want to site in Columbia County, we really have nothing, other than our regular zoning and building code and other laws,” McIntyre said.

Hyde indicated commissioners want to work with the county’s cities and hold a public dialogue on how the county should treat medical marijuana, while preventing dispensaries from establishing themselves in the meantime.

“It gives us a year to have some public meetings on the issue,” Hyde said.

Oregon voters rejected a ballot measure in 2012 that would have legalized marijuana for recreational use in the state. But since then, public opinion polling has shown increasingly large majorities in favor of less restrictive marijuana laws, particularly for medical marijuana.

Still, Hyde said, “I’m not sure that we’re stepping out against public opinion.” He noted the county moratorium only applies to unincorporated areas, which are largely rural in Columbia County.

Marijuana is illegal under federal law, and the federal government does not consider it to have any medical applications. However, Oregon and several other states have legalized it for medical use, and many experts say it can be used as an effective remedy for certain medical conditions.

Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana outright, and polls suggest Alaska and Oregon are likely to join their ranks this year. Hyde said the November statewide vote could affect what path Columbia County takes on the issue.

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