The members of the La Grande City Council said democracy is key as they chose to bring a ballot initiative to the voters that would allow the sale of recreational marijuana within city limits.
During the 2014 Measure 91 vote, the majority of voters in all the towns in Union County shot down the legalization of selling pot for recreational use.
Recently, however, the council began discussing the subject again due to the close margin in La Grande in the 2014 decision and a potential citizens initiative. Through work sessions, the council decided to bring the discussion forward and give the public an opportunity to state their opinions during the city council meeting Wednesday evening.
During the public testimony period, resident Brent Clapp addressed the councilors, telling them he believes the state has not done its due diligence to regulate this industry.
“But the train is coming,” he said. “It’s coming to La Grande eventually. As a city, if it takes more money for law enforcement, then we better figure out how to manage (the dispensaries and) zone them. The city will have to do the job of the state locally.”
Councilor Mary Ann Miesner said after the public testimony period had ended that she agreed with Clapp that the marijuana train is indeed coming.
“I don’t think we’re ready for it,” she said. “I think we need to get ourselves in order before it arrives.”
Mayor Steve Clements, however, said it’s already arrived.
“It’s already here,” he said. “I’m ripped down the middle with this.”
He said he’s torn because of factors like the democratic process and the knowledge that the product is already here. La Grande voters also already voted, and shot down, the sale of recreational marijuana.
“The passion that revolves around this is drastic,” Clements said.
And it was the passionate residents of La Grande who voiced their support and concern over the initiative.
La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey was asked to speak at the beginning of the discussion.
Harvey said in Baker County, the town of Huntington, which legalized recreational marijuana dispensaries, had a 101 percent increase in calls for law enforcement service between 2014 through 2017. There has been a 326 percent increase in traffic stops during that time. By comparison, in Halfway, which does not have a dispensary, there has been only a 2 percent increase in calls for service during that same period of time.
Harvey said during an approximate six-month time period starting in mid-2014 in La Grande there were 18 incidents of businesses being broken into and burglarized. When the two suspects were eventually caught, Harvey said, they admitted to breaking in so they could get money to buy pot.
“We’ve seen the impacts,” Harvey said.
Resident Ashley O’Toole pointed out how little time it takes the city council to approve liquor licenses for local businesses. The abuse of alcohol tears families apart, he told the council. It can lead to spousal abuse and is known to cause disease and cancer, whereas medical marijuana has been shown to treat some types of cancer.
“It (is) so easy for you to approve liquor license(s),” he said. “I’d love to see how many people break into homes and businesses for booze money.”
O’Toole then said the focus of the meeting should not be on the pros and cons of marijuana, but instead on whether to allow the voters to decide.
Resident Marie Rampton said La Grande has already voted on this and it was voted down.
“As you know, it doesn’t just take a parent to raise a child,” she said. “It takes a town.”
She said in Colorado, which legalized marijuana before Oregon, there has been an increase in pot use among youth.
Union County Sheriff’s Deputy and School Resource Office for the La Grande School District Cody Bowen confirmed he has seen more young people using marijuana since it was legalized in the state.
He said what he’s seen at schools is “alarming.”
“I have a multitude of cases day after day of students bringing marijuana to school,” Bowen said.
Some students get it when their parents leave it out, he said. It’s become something that gives certain students status points among their friends.
Bowen said there was a kindergarten student who came to school high because she had eaten a cookie with marijuana in it the night before and had to be taken to the emergency room.
Once everyone had a chance to speak, the councilors continued the discussion among themselves.
The councilors were given three options to choose from for this initiative: the first was to put the initiative on the ballot for voters to decide; the second was to wait to see if a private citizen put it on the ballot, and then the council would be given the chance to have a counter initiative on the ballot; the third was to table the decision indefinitely.
Miesner said she would rather wait to see if there was a citizen’s initiative before taking any action.
Councilor Troy Pointer said if the voters pass the initiative, the city needs to prepare itself for shutting down the pool, the library and the parks to pay for the extra law enforcement that will be needed.
Councilor Justin Rock said people have the right to decide.
“I’m not in favor of (marijuana), but I’m also not in favor of taking away people’s right to vote,” he said.
Councilor Nicole Howard said it really shouldn’t be up to the council to make the final decision.
“I think that on a matter such as this, where attitudes are informed by a range of economic, political and social beliefs, it would be irresponsible for the council to deny the citizens of La Grande a say in the matter,” Howard said.
When Miesner once again said she thinks the council should wait to see if a private citizen comes forward, Councilor Corrine Dutto disagreed.
“I think this is bigger than us,” she said.
Councilor Gary Lillard said the public has been very vocal about their stances on this issue.
Miesner made the first motion to choose the option of tabling the decision, and it was shot down 2-5 with Miesner and Pointer being the affirmative votes.
Howard made the motion to choose to let the voters decide, and that was passed 5-2, with Miesner and Pointer voting against.
The initiative will be on the November 2018 ballot. The council will now work toward creating the text of the initiative.
Contact Cherise Kaechele at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow Cherise on Twitter @lgoKaechele.