PENDLETON – Oregonians settled the question of marijuana’s legality in a decisive vote last November. Yet the home of the 105-year-old Pendleton Round-Up isn’t ready to concede.
This eastern Oregon town, where the motto is “Let ’er buck,” doesn’t want to let go of marijuana’s prohibition era. And if that seems hardheaded, consider the spirit of its fabled rodeo, where crowds of up to 20,000 chant the town’s hang-tough slogan when a cowboy enters the arena.
“When it comes to a lot of our laws, they are determined by a couple of counties and Portland,” said Pendleton Mayor Phillip Houk. “We are used to that, so what we have to do is buck up and figure out what we are going to do.”
For Pendleton, it may mean trying to ban marijuana retailers from the city.
The Willamette Valley, Portland especially, may have moved on from debates over cannabis. But among many here, marijuana’s dark reputation as a gateway drug linked to mental illness, family dysfunction and addiction remains intact.
As part of its effort to collect input from Oregonians, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission on Thursday held the first of 10 statewide public forums. The first two were in Baker City and Pendleton, drawing more than 200 residents from a sparsely populated swath of eastern Oregon.
Police, elected leaders, business owners and parents filled seats at the events, some driving more than an hour to talk about what legal marijuana means for rural Oregon.
“I am trying to picture what this is going to look like in our town,” said Lisa Weigum, 30, a John Day councilwoman who made the 80-mile trip to attend the Baker City forum.
Speaker after speaker told Rob Patridge, chairman of the liquor control commission, to craft rules that will keep marijuana away from kids, limit marijuana retailers’ ability to advertise and restrict where they can operate. Residents pushed the commission to develop a robust public education campaign aimed at Oregonians young and old about marijuana and its risks.
Delmer Hanson, mayor of Island City — population 988 — in Union County, said he’s especially worried about the potency of marijuana-infused edible products, such as gummy bears and other candies.
“We just have to figure out a way to keep this away from our children,” Hanson said. “I think we will find that even adults don’t realize the magnitude of the effect these edibles can have on them.”
Karen Howton agreed. “Our youth do not need to see this as a normal thing,” the 36-year-old mother of two from Island City said at the Baker City forum. “I am a parent and I’m scared to death of it.”
Howton echoed the view of many in the room when she urged Patridge to think about eastern Oregon when writing the rules. The counties that hosted the first two public forums — Baker and Umatilla — voted against the measure.
“The east side is really different,” said Howton, as several in the crowd nodded. “Things go differently here.”
To understand those differences, consider: Deschutes County was the only county east of the Cascades to vote in favor of legal marijuana. Portland is home to nearly 100 licensed medical marijuana dispensaries, while Umatilla and Baker counties, where nearly 900 medical marijuana patients reside, have none.
Patridge, who’s also Klamath County’s district attorney, told the Baker City audience that while he opposed Measure 91, he’s determined to carry out the liquor commission’s job of regulating the industry.
“I am not here to re-litigate whether recreational marijuana is good policy or bad policy,” he said. “What I am here to talk to you about is how to put this thing together in a safe and responsible manner in the community and throughout the state of Oregon.”
Under the new law, the job of regulating the marijuana industry falls to the liquor control commission, which will oversee how cannabis is produced, processed and sold.
Local communities can ban the sale of the drug within their city limits, but only through a vote of the people at a general election. Local leaders in places like Pendleton worry about the timing of the opt-out provision: The next general election is in November 2016, after the state is expected to have begun issuing licenses for marijuana growers, processors and retailers.
Rural residents say they’ve already seen signs of change. At the Baker City forum, Weigum talked about how a John Day shop now sells pipes for marijuana use.
“They are selling pipes in a glass case and the slushy machine is on top,” said Weigum. “It normalizes things.”
“And,” said Howton, “brings it into every day conversation where maybe it shouldn’t be.”
It’s hard to find a main thoroughfare in Portland that isn’t home to a medical marijuana dispensary. Portland police have for years greeted the presence of these shops with a collective shrug, a nod to the city’s “Keep Portland weird” slogan.
But it’s a different story in Pendleton, which like Baker City, imposed a moratorium on medical dispensaries. Pendleton police enforce medical marijuana laws “pretty aggressively,” performing “compliance checks” on cannabis growers to ensure they don’t have more plants than they’re allowed under law, said Police Chief Stuart Roberts.
“It’s become more problematic because it becomes an exercise in futility,” he said. “No one is going to prosecute it.”
Pendleton police plan to continue to enforce existing marijuana laws until new possession and cultivation provisions take effect in July. And Roberts said there are no plans to phase out marijuana detection from the agency’s K9 program.
The police chief said he worries most that the liquor control commission is already stretched too thin to enforce marijuana regulations. He said he fears that job will fall to police. And like many here, Roberts worries Pendleton’s drug addiction rates will spike and kids will end up accidentally snacking on marijuana-infused cookies or other treats.
“You have a plateful of baked goods on the counter and they go to town on them,” he said, offering up one possible scenario. “Pretty soon we have a significant issue.”
Though worried, Roberts sounded resigned.
“The reality is it’s here,” he said, “and it’s here to stay.”
Many in Pendleton echo the chief’s concerns and say they’re unhappy about the prospect of a marijuana retailer nestled among storefronts selling saddles, cowboy boots and Old West memorabilia.
Richard Stapleman, 50, who makes cowboy boots in his downtown shop, said he’s never tried marijuana.
“I know other guys who use it,” said Stapleman, snipping leather for a pair of $ 800 red and black custom boots for the Pendleton mayor. “I think it makes you lazy. They’ve proven to me that it makes you lazy.”
He said he wants Pendleton’s elected leaders to pursue opting out of allowing retail marijuana shops.
“I want them to have to drive far and wide to get it,” he said.
Across the street at Hamley & Co, the western store legendary for its saddles, owner Parley Pearce said legal marijuana will create a costly burden for taxpayers. Pearce, 65, a commercial developer who lives in Walla Walla, Washington, owns many buildings in downtown Pendleton, which he described as “a town with some sizzle.” This is a place where visitors can spend the night in a former brothel that now operates as a charming downtown inn. Pearce is converting a second brothel into a hotel as well.
But even in a town with a past that might make Portland blush, legal marijuana goes too far for many. Pearce wants it to stay out of Umatilla County.
“It’s not so much that I oppose personal choice,” he said, standing outside of his saddle shop. “It’s just that I know that people who make good personal choices end up paying for those who make bad choices.”
If one needs proof that Pendleton tolerates some vices, look no further than the Wicked Kitty, a tattoo parlor that also peddles sex toys. Shop manager Angela Treadwell, 44, said she supports legal marijuana, though she doesn’t use it.
She fears local political leaders will push for an opt-out of recreational marijuana – something City Council members are already interested in pursuing, said Chuck Wood, a Pendleton City Council member.
“It’s on too fast a track for us to do an effective job to get it in place,” Wood said.
A couple years ago, the Wicked Kitty added to its shelves glass pipes for marijuana consumption after local residents peppered Treadwell with requests for them. Pipes and vaporizer pens are displayed in a room tucked into the back of the second floor, past the area where pornographic movies and sex toys are sold.
Treadwell’s biggest worry: whether the legal marijuana industry will even get off the ground in her hometown.
“Pendleton is a good old boy, cowboy town,” said Treadwell. “I mean that respectfully. I love my town.”
— Noelle Crombie