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More Than 100 Oregon Cities Pass Dispensary Moratoriums


In March, a new Oregon law allowing medical marijuana to be sold in storefront dispensaries went into effect. Many of the newly-licensed dispensaries have yet to open, at least in part because another new law allows local authorities to ban the shops for up to a year. So far, lots of cities have done that.

Chris Corcoran has seen the value of medical marijuana up close and personal.

Chris Corcoran: “I have had two sisters pass away as a result of cancer … Both of my sisters used medical marijuana.”

Watching his sisters get better pain relief from cannabis than from standard prescription narcotics has made Corcoran a believer.

Chris Corcoran: “The ravages of cancer and some of the other diseases that have been effectively treated by medical marijuana is mind-boggling.”

All of which may seem a little odd when you consider that Corcoran is the Medford City Councilor who sponsored the first city ordinance in Oregon that effectively bans medical marijuana dispensaries. Last September, the council unanimously changed the rules for getting a city business license in Medford to prohibit any business that violates local, state or federal law.

In Oregon, California and 19 other states medical use of cannabis is legal, but under federal law it’s still listed as among the most dangerous drugs. Chris Corcoran says he and his council colleagues feel they have an obligation to uphold federal, as well as state, law.  But he also says the dispensary ban reflects the will of the people he represents.

Chris Corcoran: “There’s no doubt in my mind that if we were to take a vote in the city of Medford today, given the demographics, the culture of our community, the citizens would say no, by a vast majority.”

Medford passed its dispensary ban before state lawmakers gave cities the option of a one-year moratorium. So far, more than a hundred cities in Oregon have taken that route, and dozens more are considering it. But not all the cities that have opted for moratoriums share Medford’s “hell, no” attitude.

Rich Rosenthal: Make no mistake; medical marijuana dispensaries will be allowed to operate in Ashland.

Rich Rosenthal is on the Ashland City Council. He says he voted for the city’s recent moratorium because he understood the wisdom of taking time to work out zoning and land use issues so that dispensaries in Ashland are appropriately located.

Rosenthal says the council feels it’s important to accommodate medical marijuana patients.

Rich Rosenthal: “There are many, many people in Ashland who rely upon this type of medication, and that they should have access to it. That’s just recognizing the reality in the community I live in.”

Mike McCauley, who heads the League of Oregon Cities, says the realities in communities around the state are displayed in the diversity of reasons for passing moratoriums.

Mike McCauley: “Some cities are adopting a moratorium because they don’t want medical marijuana dispensaries in their communities for a variety of reasons. Some people are adopting a moratorium so that they can have time to figure out how they want to deal with it. Some are adopting a moratorium to see what the experience is in other cities around the state.”

McCauley says some cities are looking to the next legislative session in 2015, where they hope to get explicit recognition of what McCauley’s group sees as a local control right to refuse to allow dispensaries in their communities at all.

Anthony Johnson hopes it doesn’t come to that.

Anthony Johnson: “We understand their concerns and want to address those concerns.”

Johnson heads the Oregon Cannabis Industry Association. He’s spent a lot of time recently talking to city and county officials across the state, telling them that dispensary owners are happy to agree to limits on where, when and how the shops operate. Johnson acknowledges this eagerness to accommodate has an element of self-interest.

Anthony Johnson: “In many ways, we have the most at stake because we understand an out-of-control, unregulated-type system can invite voter backlash and even interference from the federal government.”

So far, Johnson says, his pitch has met with mixed success.

The rush to put the brakes on Oregon’s new medical marijuana dispensaries is disappointing to State Representative Peter Buckley. The Ashland Democrat was co-sponsor of the law legalizing and regulating dispensaries.

Peter Buckley: “If the state of Oregon has decided, which we have, by a vote of the people, that marijuana should be considered a medicine, it should not be allowable for a city to say, ‘You may have medicine, but you may not have medicine.’”

Buckley says local jurisdictions clearly have authority to regulate dispensaries, but not to ban them outright. If cities get creative and craft local regulations that make sense in their communities, he says, they’ll avoid many of the problems they fear. Still, Buckley says, he’s optimistic.

Peter Buckley: “When people see, over a period of time, that these are just simple businesses, more like a pharmacy than anything else, and they’re not a danger to a neighborhood, they’re not something that causes problems in the city, once you experience what that is and the fear level dies down, I believe the acceptance of dispensaries will become very much commonplace.”

Oregon cities and counties have until May 1st to put a moratorium in place. Those temporary bans will expire no later than May 1st, 2015. Look for a vigorous debate next year in Salem over whether the principle of local control trumps the goal of assuring safe access to medicine.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.