Op-Ed: Josephine County Stole Our Cannabis Business
On Wednesday December 6, 2017 at 10:20 A.M. the Josephine County Commissioners stole our cannabis business.
They planned taking it over the past year. They had one goal in mind to ban cannabis gardening on rural residential lands by any and all means possible before they ever started the political process. Indeed, they fixed their political process around that goal, and as a result it became the most nonstrategic and serpentine misadventure I have ever seen in local politics. They literally made things up as they went. As reported in the Curry Coastal Pilot: “Josephine County Commissioner Lily Morgan said that [the] county’s experience has been a “learn as we go process.”” A more frank assessment came from GP Courier editor, Scott Stoddard who said: “If anyone in Curry County happens to come across this editorial, please heed this advice: The last place you want to turn to for guidance on the regulation of marijuana is Josephine County.”
Commissioners Morgan and DeYoung are renowned for their bias against cannabis, not only from their time as GP city counselors banning cannabis gardening there, but also for the endless array of disparaging comments they have made about the plant and the people who grow it. As reported in the Illinois Valley News, they even banned local organizations from renting county buildings to host farmer forums on best practices because the subject was “marijuana related.” It took Wally Hicks panicking about discrimination lawsuits to reverse that mandate. Because they need to keep a straight face during this political process, they toned down their bias and started to appear less hostile toward cannabis, but as with the worst aspects of politics, it was all for show.
The commissioners sought the most effective means to rid our county of cannabis, so they went to where more than 85% of it has always been cultivated, the lands where people live, namely rural residential properties. By law they couldn’t go after folks on EFU land, but that suited them just fine for a couple reasons. The first reason is that Josephine County has a miniscule fraction of EFU land compared to neighboring Jackson County, and EFU land is not where the vast majority of cannabis is grown. Second, the few big-Ag corporate farmers who recently bought up all the bits of EFU land for extraordinarily high, inflated prices previously lobbied the commissioners to ban it off rural residential land to appease their risk-averse investors worried about oversupply. These big corporate cannabis farms, while few in number, will be just like the fat-cat timber executives of the past, and I’m pretty sure that image was not lost on the commissioners: in the future there will be money.
While the commissioners hate cannabis, they appear to love corporations, so this scenario was not only something they could live with, it was something they wanted enough to fight for no matter what it took. Since the commissioners do not have a mandate to control supply and demand, they had to find another way to satisfy their desire to impose their regressive morality while appeasing their new masters.
So they concocted ballot question Measure 17.81 narrowly limited to “commercial OLCC Rec” operations because that was all they could legally control at the time. This happened during a low-voter turnout special election that always skews toward more socially conservative outcomes. Furthermore, a substantial number of voters were GP city residents who should have no business telling us how to live in the county on RR lands. They voted in a landslide to say no. Frankly, who would want a commercial operation with huge translucent warehouses next to your home? Not me. The commissioners engineered the question they way pollsters do, and they secured the answer they wanted.
But Measure 17.81 asked voters to weigh in on a problem that did not exist: at the time of the vote there had not been one single complaint lodged against an OLCC rec farm located on RR lands. Indeed, county officials never thought OLCC commercial rec was ever a problem. Community Development Director, Julie Schmelzer said this to me in an email on 4/20/2017, she said it on the front page of the Illinois Valley News a few weeks later, and she said it in emails just four days before the May 16 special election vote on the matter. On 5/11/2017 Ms. Schmelzer wrote to commissioner Morgan: “Lastly, it does not surprise me they are not on the rec list…medical continues to be the problem, at least for our office.” Later on the same day she wrote again: “Not a rec grower…likely medical. They are the biggest problem Lily. I can’t stress that enough…Julie.”
Then the county fraud grew. With the newly passed state laws, SB 1057 and HB 2198, the OLCC took over regulating all gardens of 13 or more plants, including medical with commercial. So the commissioners changed their story to say the ballot question actually included all gardens 13 or more plants, when at the time of the vote it only meant large Tier 1 & 2 commercial operations. This was a calculating act Julie Schmelzer anticipated doing, as reported in the GP Courier on 4/27/2017 two weeks before the ballot measure: “County officials say the advisory question was put on the ballot at a time when it appeared that oversight of the medical program would be shifted from the Oregon Health Authority to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. This would mean that medical farms selling to OLCC-licensed facilities would likely fall under the ban, according to Schmelzer.”
Ms. Schmelzer also wrote about snaring medical gardens in an email to commissioner Hare on 6/16/2017: “Currently rec growers on RR is still very minimal, so I’m not concerned about them. But, with medical going to OLCC, I’m thinking they eventually/soon may become classified as ‘rec’ and directly be affected by the results of the advisory question.” This is duplicitous, and if it’s not illegal, then our political system is broken and rigged. Bear in mind, however, everything Ms. Schmelzer has done has been at the explicit direction of her bosses, the elected county commissioners.
But all this political subterfuge was not enough to satisfy the county officials. They just had to press the issue harder, so they ramped up their public relations machine and started making unsubstantiated claims grossly overstating negative public sentiment directed at cannabis. They repeatedly lied on the record in public hearings and in the media making false claims about “1,000 marijuana-related complaints.” Actually, they had been doing this all year, however it did not reach a fever pitch until later this summer. That’s when I decided to file official Requests for Information to determine the veracity of the claims.
A lot of the facts have been reported already in articles in the Illinois Valley News, so I will try to make this short. First I was told by Commissioner Morgan on 4/19/2017 that there were 327 complaints, then on 7/19/2017 Ms. Schmelzer said there were 300 during that public hearing, then a month later on 8/28/2017 at the Rural Planning Commission hearing Ms. Schmelzer said there were only “100 formal complaints,” and then again a month later on 9/20/2017 during the first reading of Ordinance 2017-002 Ms. Schmelzer said there were “Approximately 1000 (1005) marijuana written, formal complaints filed in one year (approximately 300 just since the RPC hearing on August 28, 2017). 100’s (1000’s?) of emails, calls, and office visits to Commissioners and Staff regarding fears, vicious dogs, guns, thefts, concerns, illegal activity, property values, illegal deforestation, improper grading, runoff and flooding, etc.”
When my request for information was processed by the planning department all they could send me was a list of 729 open code violations going back over 10 years that had virtually nothing to do with cannabis. They also sent me what they called a “mailing list,” compiled to send announcements to growers they have addresses on. They did not produce one single official Complaint Form as I had requested. The real story here is why the county can’t close 10 years worth of code violations, many of which are labeled high priority, but now seek to enforce a draconian code regime on cannabis gardeners cultivating 13 or more plants.
This was also followed up by commissioner DeYoung bragging on Channel 5 news on 10/9/2017 that he had a four-inch thick stack of complaints on his desk from the past year. Well, it turned out to be 3/4″ thick and had a total of 88 anti-cannabis letters mixed in with pro-cannabis letters. The county received the first one in April, while the majority came in August and September. I also received 750 pages of emails from my request, and after a full review of all of them it turns out there may be a grand total of about 125 letters that are anti-cannabis. This undermines the dramatic claims that the commissioners received half a dozen per day for the past year. Furthermore, there were a considerable number of pro-cannabis letters in those stacks that the commissioners conveniently ignored. In a county where 38,000 residents live on 16,212 properties on RR lands, that is an insignificant number by all measures.
The county officials blatantly lied about the number and nature of the correspondence they received to gin up the public perception that growing cannabis on RR lands was a huge problem they had to ban. We all ought to be outraged that our elected officials perpetuate the worst stereotypes of politicians. It is a fact that they could not have gotten this far by being honest, open and transparent, and that the only way they were ever going to achieve their predetermined goal of banning cannabis was through deceit. But the story only gets worse from here.
On 10/20/2017 both commissioner Morgan and director Schmelzer were reported in the Curry Coastal Pilot claiming the existence of 5,000 illegal grow sites in Josephine County. Then on 10/25/2017 commissioner Morgan wrote an email stating: “The biggest struggle I have faced is knowing that the approximate 3000 “medical” grows are going unchecked and unregulated. There is an estimated additional 5000 unregistered grows, that have no intent of following any law. These 203 OLCC growers chose to go by the rules and be subjected to inspections, tracking and increased fees by getting permits. 8000 unregulated grows versus 203 regulated.”
If true, this means Ordinance 2017-002 is total junk and doomed to fail. This new law will have no effect on 5,000 illegal grows, because they were illegal before and will be illegal after — these growers won’t even notice that the ban passed. And it will ignore the 2,450 legal OMMP gardeners who cultivate less than 13 plants. This ordinance takes lawful cannabis gardeners who grow 13 or more plants and makes them unlawful. Frankly, many people are of the opinion this ordinance will only increase the number of unlawful grows pushing some of the 3,000 into the 5,000 pile by default. How is this in the public interest?
The well-intentioned folks who live next to bad neighbors who grow cannabis will not see their problems resolved when the 5,000 continue unabated and elements of the 3,000 turn to the dark side. They will become exponentially outraged, mark my words. It should also be noted that the 41 regulated and professional OLCC recreational farms already permitted on RR lands will be put out of business in two years when they lose their investments by being forced to cut down to 1/8 of an acre. These farms are so few, when they disappear hardly anyone will notice except the families who are put out on the street.
This new law punishes the decent folk and leaves untouched the scofflaws — this is how you can tell it is a bad law. You may wonder how is it possible such an illogical law can be conceived, processed and passed, and there is only one answer: the commissioners had a preconceived negative opinion that was not based on reason, nothing was going to stop them from their goal to ban cannabis however possible, and they had to commit political subterfuge to get it across the finish line. I can understand resentment over cannabis coming out of prohibition, but this is just too much.
Our region is rurally isolated and generationally impoverished. After logging has gone away, cannabis was our next great hope to help families establish a meaningful and legal form of income. Cannabis is a major economic driver for our town and is the key to our future economic development potential. Cannabis is the only agricultural crop that can be grown in small patches and be lucrative enough to support a family. Our geographic region is one of the best areas in the world to grow cannabis. Agriculture is already a permitted use on RR lands and does not require a development permit. Despite all this, the commissioners singled out cannabis to go after and in the end only hurt the lawful gardeners.
Lastly, commissioner Morgan was reported in the Illinois Valley News last week to have said that preexisting farmers could apply for a “variance” to the rules as a way around the ordinance the county officials fought so hard to pass, and that statement is either borne from a shocking lack of understanding about the laws she oversees or an equally surprising underhanded effort to provide herself and other officials political cover. Not one land use attorney agrees with her statement. Variances can only be given in rare circumstances that pertain to dimensional factors such as the distance of a required setback, but not on the use of the property in question. 83% of all RR properties are now banned outright because they are 5.00 acres or smaller, and it is patently against the law to attempt to apply a variance to permit that use. Morgan and DeYoung may think that they could apply a variance to a property less than 5.01 acres such as mine to permit the agricultural use to garden 13 or more cannabis plants, but they would be breaking the law. Why would they fight so hard all year long, resorting to dirty political tricks to ban cannabis, and then advertise a loophole? It makes no sense until you realize that the loophole is just another one of their lies.
Chris Hall, Cave Junction resident and co-founder of the Cave Junction Farmers Market.