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Some Oregon Voters Will Vote Again On Marijuana Legalization

Shawn Aman owns Going Green, a medical marijuana dispensary in Albany, Oregon.
Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network
Shawn Aman owns Going Green, a medical marijuana dispensary in Albany, Oregon.

Even though Oregon voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, you can't legally buy the stuff in more than 100 Oregon communities. That's because some city and county governments have banned recreational marijuana businesses.

But voters in nearly half of those places will have the chance to overturn those bans this November.

At Going Green medical marijuana dispensary in in Albany, Oregon, you have to have an Oregon Medical Marijuana card to shop here. And owner Shawn Aman said while business is good, a lot of people who walk in the door leave empty-handed.

"We have ten to twelve people a day come in to ask to purchase recreational,” Aman said. “And we have to send them to Corvallis, Salem or Springfield.”

As if on cue, a potential customer walked in the door and asked to buy some marijuana. But he's from out of state and didn't have the necessary paperwork. So the man pulled out his phone and looked up directions to Corvallis.

Aman said it's getting to the point where he doesn't even want to work at the front desk.

"As a business owner it feels incredibly frustrating to have to send customers down the street,” he said.

It's only about 12 miles to Corvallis, where a half-dozen dispensaries will gladly sell pot to recreational users. But in Albany, only medical sales are allowed. That's because the City Council banned recreational marijuana businesses last fall. People can still grow and use pot in their homes.

'Because Portland has it, should we have it?'

The ban was put in place despite the fact that a majority of the city's voters approved the 2014 statewide ballot measure to legalize pot. Though it was close. In a city of 50,000 people, the margin was fewer than 400 votes.

"For a community our size, that's not very many people,” Albany Mayor Sharon Konopa said. “So I knew our community was very divided on the issue.”

Konopa supports the council's ban on recreational marijuana sales. The ban is in effect until the November election, when voters will either extend it indefinitely, or overturn it.

Konopa said it was reasonable to take a one-year timeout to let people in Albany see how recreational marijuana plays out in other Oregon cities. But she said, what's the big deal if Albany isn't a place where you can buy recreational pot?

"Every community doesn't have to have every product that is sold,” Konopa said. “We don't have every business. We don't have an IKEA in Albany. Should we, because Portland has it, should we have it?”

Not everyone in city hall thinks the ban is a good idea. Ray Kopczysnki was one of two city councilors to vote against it.

"We're driving business away and the tax revenue that's potentially available from it,” he said.

Weighing bans vs tax revenue

A tenth of the state sales tax on recreational marijuana is being divvied up among Oregon cities, but only to cities that allow recreational sales. The money has to be used for law enforcement. But Oregon also allows cities and counties to locally tax marijuana sales, up to three percent.

And here's an interesting twist: At the same time that Albany's City Council will ask voters if they want to continue to ban the sale of recreational marijuana, they'll also ask voters whether they want to tax it.

To Going Green owner Shawn Aman, it's another slap in the face.

"Now that they feel like they could, might lose the fight, ‘oh we want to make sure we get our three percent. Can we get our money? We need our money.’ The audacity of that is almost comical,” Aman said.

But for Aman and Albany's other medical dispensary owners, the bigger question this fall is whether the city's voters will vote, for the second time in two years, to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana.

Regardless of what happens in Albany and the dozens of other cities and counties with local marijuana bans on the ballot, pot will definitely not be for sale in at least 53 other municipalities around Oregon. That's because Oregon lawmakers allowed local governments to ban recreational marijuana businesses without sending it to the ballot in counties where at least 55 percent of the voters in 2014 voted against the state ballot measure that legalized recreational pot.

Most of those counties are in eastern Oregon, which means that most of the places voting this fall on whether to ban recreational sales are west of the Cascades.

Copyright 2016 Northwest News Network

Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.