Max Denning

With the deadline quickly approaching to get on the ballot in November, the citizen-led initiative to let voters decide whether to allow recreational marijuana sales in La Grande has collected more than 800 signatures of the necessary 1,200.

At a rally held at Max Square on July 11 before the city council meeting, around 30 supporters of the initiative gathered. David Moyal, co-sponsor of the initiative and chief petitioner, said he was impressed with the amount of signatures they had collected so far.

“I think it’s an amazing achievement considering we’ve done it in nine days,” Moyal said.

If the ballot initiative doesn’t receive 1,200 signatures by July 17, then supporters of repealing the ban will have to wait until 2020 to try again to get it on the ballot.

In 2014, recreational marijuana was made legal in Oregon; however, the legislature allowed counties that voted against legalization to vote on whether to legalize dispensaries. The City of La Grande had a very close vote for the legalization, but ultimately voted against it. This led to the city council opting out of the sale of recreational marijuana. This April, however, the city council revisited the issue and voted 5-2 in support of taking steps toward letting citizens decide whether to repeal the ban.

In May, the council held the first formal reading of the measure, without much discussion from the public or the council itself.

At the June city council meeting, the second reading of the measure was held, and more opponents to repealing the ban attended the meeting.

After their testimony, the council voted 6-1 to leave the ordinance as is, with councilor Nicole Howard being the single vote against.

“They closed off the democratic process from both ends,” Moyal told The Observer Tuesday. “They said, ‘Well we’re not going to give it to the people to vote and we’re not going to give it enough time for an initiative process either.’”

Moyal said he had originally pulled the paperwork to start a citizen ballot initiative in March, but halted his efforts when the council began steps toward letting citizens vote in April.

Some petition signees are more focused on the democratic process than they are on legalizing marijuana, Moyal said.

“I can’t tell you how many people say, ‘I don’t use pot and I don’t approve of the use of pot, but I think that we should be able to vote on it.’ I’ve heard that response dozens of times,” Moyal said.

Many of the petitioners and individuals who signed the petition at the rally mentioned potential tax revenue from marijuana sales as a reason to support it.

Haley Pullem, a La Grande resident who signed the petition at the rally, said she thinks the potential tax revenue from marijuana sales is worth considering.

“This is actually really important because it could mean a lot of tax dollars coming into our town and that seems like something the city should vote on,” she said.

Moyal, who sits on the city’s budget committee, said it would be the “height of foolishness” to ignore an extra potential revenue stream.

“I look at how tight the budgets are and how we have to scrimp and save on everything from new vehicles to infrastructure for water system sewage to services for kids and parks and rec,” he said. “Our budget is so close to the bone it’s ridiculous.”

In January, the East Oregonian reported Pendleton had brought in $130,000 in marijuana tax revenue in the first half of the 2018 fiscal year. Moyal said he believes La Grande could bring in at least $120,000 to $130,000 a year in marijuana tax revenue.

For some local business owners, the current ban is limiting business. Rona Lindsey, owner of Highway 30 Cannabis, a medical marijuana dispensary, said she lost a significant amount of business due to the ban.

Last year I had over 3,000 people stop at my store — I kept a record of it — asking for recreational,” Lindsey said. “Those were 3,000 people who were here to spend their money, to buy gas, to eat lunch, but they got mad because they couldn’t buy and said, ‘We’ll just go on down the road to Pendleton or we’ll go to Huntington.’”

Statewide there are five cities that previously banned recreational marijuana sales where residents will be voting on whether to repeal the ban in November.

Even if the ballot initiative doesn’t receive the necessary 1,200 signatures, Moyal said it will not be the end of the effort to vote on reversing the ban in La Grande.

“If we don’t make it this year, we’ll just wait two years. I’m telling you in 2020 this is going to happen, because I’ll start doing it in February,” Moyal said. “And there’s no doubt we’ll get the signatures.”