Cannabis Advocates Shake Up Local Politics

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By Keith Mansur

Oregon Cannabis Connection

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Bearnson at his new dispensary location during build-out. Image: OCC Newspaper

As we watch the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act systematically attacked by the legislature, we also see local communities enacting rigorous and onerous rules surrounding not only retail marijuana production, sales, and processing, but also home cultivation for patients, medical grow restrictions, limits on home processing, and more. While legislative seats are not easily attainable by many disenfranchised marijuana advocates, but many local political leadership positions are. Local seats are being challenged, and won, by outsiders with a positive view of marijuana, and it seems to be an idea that is gaining steam as numerous candidates run for local office to make a change.

The current shining example of commonsense political change is in Medford, Oregon. Clay Bearnson, a soon-to-be licensed marijuana dispensary co-owner in Medford, was elected to the conservative town’s city council in 2014. A longtime co-owner of The Gypsy, a popular Medford bar, Bearnson ran for office on a commonsense platform that also embraced cannabis as the future for the economically depressed area. Though not the major focus of his campaign, he made no bones about the fact that he supported cannabis.

“I felt that there was an overall lack of local representation for the working-class.” explained Bearnson to the Oregon Cannabis Connection (OCC). “When you have a job that is 100% volunteer you typically attract candidates that are either retired or wealthy, sometimes both. I am honored to represent everyday people that are just like me.”

In November, Medford’s Council almost passed restrictive rules concerning medical marijuana, including home grow restrictions for medical patients that went far beyond the state imposed restrictions from legislation passed earlier in 2015. The restrictions were a “compromise” that Mayor Wheeler had sought to limit medical grows in residential areas. The proponents argued that since they were allowing dispensaries and recreational grows to be licensed, home grows would not be necessary. Bearnson and Stein made it clear that forcing people into dispensaries for their medicine is not an option they were willing to support.

“Unfortunately, not everybody can afford to just hop in their car and drive on down to the nearest dispensary to buy their cannabis,” Bearnson said.

Bearnson’s dispensary, Oregon Farmacy, will be downtown and not far from The Gypsy. He and his partners hope to open by March and plan to be model business owners, as he and his partner Robin have been with their bar.

Clay Bearnson at his Bar, The Gypsy in Medford, OR.

“The Gypsy has maintained OLCC compliance for the past thirteen years because we run a tight ship,” Bearnson said. “Combine that with our customer service skills, quality products, and longtime Oregon roots, we should be able to make a go with Oregon Farmacy.”

Citizens turned out in droves, packing the Council chamber for two separate meetings on the same day. Bearnson’s voice of reason was one of the few on the Council, along with that of Councilman Kevin Stein. They argued to other council members that the residents of Medford, at a minimum, should be able to vote on the issue in November. After hours of public testimony and discussion, the Council  eventually voted to send the question to voters in November.

To that, Bearnson told OCC, “Even if voters elect to ban cultivation in residential areas, I don’t think it will be defensible in court.”

Medford Councilman Bearnson is not the only one trying to make an impact. A few others are now running or have run for local office, including Angela Fairless in Seaside, Oregon, who fell short in her bid for Mayor of the coastal town in 2014. Newport is a small coastal town of 6,500 people, and relies on tourism for the bulk of its economy. She has indicated that she might run again, though the first time she really did it for effect.

“I ran with NO intention of winning…. I wanted to run for the sake of motivating others to get active, to shake things up and increase voter turnout, especially among the younger demographics,” she explained. “I was successful in accomplishing this, since there were a couple hundred more votes in this election than previous voter turnouts for Seaside.”

Fairless wanted to be a fresh new voice in a sea of apathetic voters. It could be that her campaign affected the outcome of voting in Seaside… not in the Mayoral race, but on Measure 91, which was on the ballot at the same time.

Angela Fairless. Image: Angela Fairless Facebook

“Once the City of Seaside saw that the voters, in every precinct of Seaside, voted by majority to approve the recreational side of things, they changed their tune,” Fairless said. “Positive social change is definitely happening, and not just in regard to cannabis.”

She was remarkably successful in her bid, and even scared herself, and others, when she thought she might actually win the election. In the end, she garnered a respectable 31% of the vote against a Mayor who had been in office for half of her life. Fairless is 32 years old.

I wanted to show “politicians” how it is supposed to be done and therefore instead of hosting any campaign fundraisers, my campaign events were food-raisers for the local food bank,” she told OCC. “I used the most minimal amount of money possible and ran the campaign myself with no committee or campaign manager. I had more signs than all the other local Mayoral or Council candidates, combined… and they were pink with hearts on them!”

It didn’t start in Oregon, by any means. California—as it has done so often in the marijuana movement—led the way in 2013 when Sebastopol elected one of their new city councilmen to Mayor.

Understand though, Sebastopol, California, is not Medford, Oregon. In fact, Sebastopol is one of the most liberal towns in California, the first state to legalize medical use of marijuana in 1996. But, the town still had detractors who voiced concerns about Mayor Robert Jacob’s ownership interest in a medical marijuana dispensary, which he opened in 2007.

“I ran [for City Council] and got the second most votes ever and more individual contributions from residents than ever before and raised more money than anybody ever raised,” Jacob told OCC. The former Mayor, and still councilman, was elected to the Council in 2012. The Council elected him Mayor in 2014.

What would Jacob’s advice be to those seeking office who are obvious cannabis supporters: keep mum on cannabis.

“Don’t talk about cannabis,” he explained. “Cannabis is going to follow you, and the questions are going to come, just answer those questions and keep the cannabis conversation simple because everyone knows that about you already. What I talked about when I ran was the traffic, and I talked about the environment, and about the local economy, poverty, and housing.”

Jacob explained that it’s important to get involved in local politics but, like Bearnson, not focus too much on marijuana.

Robert Jacobs
Robert Jacobs

“They should get involved in local politics and forget about their business and engage Chamber of Commerce, local Kiwanis club, local Rotary club,”  he explained. “They should apply to committees, they should apply for Boards and Commissions, not just be a dispensary owner that runs for office.”

It’s also happening in Klamath County, Oregon, a more conservative area than Medford, Seaside, or Sebastopol. There a hydroponic grow shop owner, Steve Ball, is running for Klamath County Commissioner. He owns Basin Indoor Garden Center in Klamath Falls, and he hopes to have an effect on the rural community by winning one of only three Commissioner seats available.

Ball told OCC, “What initially motivated me to run is that I went to a couple of commissioners meetings and they were very unreceptive to it, very unreceptive, which is what stimulated me [to run].”

Klamath joined many other counties east of the Cascades to ban recreational marijuana completely, even though the city of Klamath Falls already had medical dispensaries, but they do not allow recreational sales. The county banned every type of licensing that is offered by the state. Recently, the banned recreational sales have hampered the existing dispensary businesses since many customers are simply driving over the mountains to the Rogue Valley for their cannabis.

“They pretended to be receptive to it, we filled the room with at least two thirds of the people supporting it, but they said no, no way here,” Ball said. “I see it as a huge economic positive. We are economically depressed here, badly, and most of the people I see and talk to think it could really be an economic benefit for our area and really help us out.”

Steve Ball at his store, Basin Indoor Gardening. Image courtesy Steve Ball.
Steve Ball at his store, Basin Indoor Gardening. Image courtesy Steve Ball.

What chance does Ball have in the conservative town? He believes it’s pretty good, since attitudes are changing.

“The reception I am getting is pretty good, and the grower and cannabis community over here is larger than I think people realize,” he explained. “One reason I went for this office is because it’s non-partisan…. I like that because I don’t think cannabis is a partisan issue, or a political issue, I think it’s a people issue because I think it belongs to the people.”

Another town in Klamath County has re-appointed a marijuana advocate to their City Council. Chiloquin, a small town about 30 miles north of Klamath Falls, has appointed former Mayor, and now outed medical marijuana grower and soon to be marijuana dispensary owner, Mark Cobb to an empty seat on the council.

Current Mayor Joe Hobbs appointed Cobb knowing that he has been an advocate for marijuana legalization. They are comfortable enough with marijuana to make Cobb the Mayor Pro-Tempore a few meetings ago (essentially vice-Mayor). In fact, the town of just 750 is poised to be the only city in Klamath County to allow recreational cannabis businesses to operate.

“A few years ago… I had a small fire in my grow, which brought in the local fire department and law enforcement,” said Cobb. “After that, I was a more outspoken advocate since they knew I was a medical marijuana grower.”

What makes Chiloquin open to recreational marijuana business when the rest of Klamath County is so resistant?

“We are a majority Native American community and I think they’re more open on the marijuana idea to start with,” explained Cobb. “I’m not a tribal member, but the vast majority of the community is, and they tend to be on the more liberal side than Klamath County, which seems to be one of the most conservative counties in the state.”

Writing this story reminded me of Jim Klahr, former candidate for Oregon’s House, District 1 in Brookings, who would be proud of these advocates who are making a difference. Jim passed away in 2014 just a few days after Measure 91 was triumphant, and I know he would be leading the fight to save the OMMA and stop local towns from banning recreational cannabis, too. I will remember him fondly every time another marijuana advocate runs or gets elected to office. Hopefully, we see many, many more doing just that!

© 2016 Oregon Cannabis Connection. All rights reserved.

Keith Mansur

Keith Mansur is the founder, publisher, and editor of Oregon Cannabis Connection newspaper. The print publication has been serving Oregon since 2010. He has been a Oregon medical marijuana patient, grower, and caregiver since 2006. Find him on Facebook or email him at occnewspaper420@gmail.com

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