OR: Deschutes County Looks to California For Cannabis Guidance

Photo Credit: AP

After looking to a variety of Oregon agencies for guidance on Deschutes County’s approach to recreational marijuana, county planners could look south for a solution.

Last week, the Deschutes County Commission discussed approaches to limit the density of marijuana growing operations in certain rural parts of the county that have seen the lion’s share of land use applications, including Tumalo and Alfalfa. Nick Lelack, community development director for Deschutes County, said this has been a priority for the commission since it began reaching out to rural residents last year.

“There are a couple of areas that are experiencing more issues than others, and the board wants to address those issues,” Lelack said.

One of the suggested approaches, which will be explored in greater depth during a work session Wednesday, is to emulate approaches being considered in certain cities and counties in California to limit the newly legal industry there.

Before the commission meeting May 7, Deschutes County planning staff provided a list of four cities and counties in California that had enacted or has proposed rules to restrict marijuana cultivation: Humboldt County, Sacramento, Santa Barbara County and Monterey County. The approaches vary in each community, from proposed limitations on the number of cultivation licenses in Humboldt County, to mandating that cannabis cultivation must occur within an existing warehouse or greenhouse in Monterey County.

Lelack noted that looking at California’s restrictions is just one method among many when exploring ways to limit the marijuana industry in rural parts of the county. There aren’t examples of these types of limitations in Oregon counties, so looking outside the state could help the county identify a legally defensible approach, he said.

“We’re going to need a solid justification for any caps,” Lelack said. “The bar will be very high.”

Deschutes County finalized rules for recreational marijuana growing operations outside urban growth boundaries in fall 2016. The regulations were always intended to be revisited, and Deschutes County commissioners and staff have been looking at changing their approach to marijuana regulations since last September.

The commission has focused on refining land use restrictions around marijuana — ranging from property set backs to smell mitigation — and requesting additional information from state agencies like the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and the Oregon Water Resources Department.

At the request of Commissioner Phil Henderson, the county has looked at how other communities are managing the newly legal industry.

“They just don’t seem to have the same problems,” Henderson said of communities in California and Washington.

Recreational marijuana became legal in California at the beginning of this year, after the state passed Proposition 64 in 2016. The law provides leeway for cities and counties to enforce their own laws around cannabis production, and a majority of local governments in California currently don’t allow recreational cannabis. And several that do are looking at ways to limit density to avoid being inundated with applications, according to Lelack.

As a potential model for Deschutes County, Henderson pointed to Humboldt County in far Northern California, which is considering capping the total number of cannabis cultivation permits at 5,000. However, he was quick to point out that any cap in Deschutes County would likely be set far lower than the California county, which is one of three counties — Mendocino and Trinity being the others — that have long been called the “Emerald Triangle” because of the large amount of cannabis grown there.

“That’s kind of the epicenter of outdoor growing in California,” Henderson said. “I don’t think we’d necessarily try to be that.”

One key difference between marijuana laws in Oregon and California is Oregon’s protection of the industry under right-to-farm laws.

For that reason, Lelack said the county faces a significant legal hurdle when trying to place limits on cannabis cultivation.

The County Commission will discuss density caps and other potential changes to the county’s marijuana rules in more detail at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Deschutes Services Building at 1300 NW Wall St.