The Columbian / Associated Press

Marijuana legalization still contentious in Oregon counties

FILE--In this Oct. 1, 2015, file photo, employees of Amazon Organics, a pot dispensary in Eugene, Ore., help customers purchase recreational marijuana. Dozens of communities and about half of Oregon's counties have banned recreational pot shops as allowed under state law, but a group of pot activists are asking voters in two counties on May 17 to overturn the opt-outs. More communities and counties will be voting on similar measures in the general election in November. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang, file)

REDMOND, Ore. — Last year, Lindsey Pate and her husband, Christopher, bought 15 acres of high desert covered in junipers in central Oregon, where they planned to grow marijuana in greenhouses to sell for recreational use.

In December, however, Deschutes County banned the recreational marijuana business in unincorporated areas, including the Pates’ land.

Underscoring the shifting tides Oregon is experiencing even after voters legalized marijuana in 2014, the county’s commissioners, after holding public meetings and hearing from several groups, decided Wednesday to allow marijuana cultivation, processing and sales.

In another sign of the shifting tides, voters in Grant County in conservative eastern Oregon and Klamath County in the south will decide in Oregon’s primary election on Tuesday whether to repeal their counties’ bans after marijuana advocates collected enough signatures.

Oregon is one of four states that, along with Washington, D.C., allow marijuana possession in small amounts by adults over 21 for any reason.

Shortly after Oregon voters decided to legalize marijuana, the state allowed cities and counties to ban marijuana production and sales where at least 55 percent of voters opposed legalization. Over 100 cities and counties have since “opted out,” according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

The Deschutes County Commissioners said they wrestled with the issue of whether to repeal their county’s ban.

“I think that we have a responsibility to do what we can to find a balance, somewhere in the middle of a very divisive issue,” Commissioner Tammy Baney said, minutes before the three commissioners voted unanimously to overturn the ban. “Whether we like it or not, this (marijuana) is something that is here.”

There had been vocal opponents to marijuana in Deschutes County, famed for its mountains, its biking, skiing and other outdoor recreational opportunities and for its microbreweries. Many outdoor enthusiasts have moved here, as well as retirees who have bought up small farm tracts.

Some rural residents worry about the skunky smell of pot plantations and lighting being used in greenhouses at night, among other concerns.

But the commissioners noted that the properties being scooped up by retirees are often intended for farming, and that growers would be producing a new cash crop, one that the Oregon Department of Revenue said generated $6.84 million in tax payments from January through the end of March alone.

The commissioners warned against any outbursts before they announced their decision. But if any marijuana opponents were in the room — largely occupied by a few dozen men and women, many of whom wore “Adopt Cannabis Business Regulations Now” stickers on their shirts — they were silent.

“Wow,” Julie Austin, operations manager at Cascadia Labs, gasped after the commission voted. The lab she works for, located in the back of a business park in Bend, tests marijuana for potency, pesticides and other items.

“Our business depends on their business,” Austin told a reporter, gesturing at marijuana growers who were in the hearing room, one sporting a cowboy hat over his ponytail, another a bright Hawaiian shirt.

Pate, who had served as a member of a marijuana advisory panel to the commission, was more guarded in her reaction.

“It’s a very good starting point,” she said. County staff must now draft land-use rules to regulate how marijuana is grown, processed and sold.

Pate is getting ready. She and her husband, who already grow medical marijuana, which is permitted, have driven wooden stakes with orange flagging to show anticipated boundary requirements — at least 100 feet from any property line — for their future greenhouses.

“This is where we’re going to put our greenhouses, right out here,” she said a day after the vote, sweeping her arm at a weedy half-acre.

“We’ve been sitting on this property for a year, waiting for the county to adopt regulations,” she added. “They did get it right, showing leadership, and I commend them.”

Not all residents are pleased.

Bend resident Betty Faller wrote an open letter to the commissioners, saying: “Would you want marijuana grow operations built across the street from you and your family? No? Then don’t let them be built near other residents’ homes.”

In contrast to Deschutes County, there hasn’t been much of a fuss in Grant County over the marijuana ballot measure.

“It’s pretty casual, really,” county Judge Scott Myers said in a telephone interview on Friday. “Here, we had 64 to 65 percent opposed to legalization. I don’t anything has changed in voters’ minds since the November 2014 vote.”

Myers, whose position is akin to county commissioner, said that most of the counties that rejected marijuana in 2014 were in the east, highlighting a divide between them and Portland, Eugene — where the University of Oregon is located — and other more liberal areas in western Oregon.

“It’s mostly conservative here, mostly old-type ranch families,” he said. “I’d be more than surprised if it passes.”