Will pot from Oregon flood Idaho? Don’t count on it

Payette County Sheriff Chad Huff doesn’t want to see his 72-bed jail filled with cannabis smokers.

Before July 1’s legalization of recreational marijuana across the Snake River in Oregon, Huff spoke with his deputies. He encouraged them to cite and release violators of Idaho’s marijuana possession law. Possession of up to 3 ounces of pot in Idaho is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

“I’ve basically asked that they not overload our jail with marijuana arrests,” Huff said. “We’re going to take more of a citation in the field (approach) vs. an actual physical arrest on marijuana charges.”

Huff said he told his deputies to use their judgment if there other circumstances that would warrant taking a marijuana smoker to jail. He just doesn’t want the added expense of housing those violators, nor does he want to be forced to release other inmates if the jail fills up.

The sheriff has spoken to Payette County prosecutors and judges, asking them to consider assigning a person convicted of marijuana possession to a work crew or to another punishment other than jail.

Oregonians can grow their own

Under the new law, passed by voters in November, Oregonians can grow up to four marijuana plants per household. In Alaska, where legalization went into effect in February, residents can grow up to six plants in their homes. Washington and Colorado allow people to buy pot but they cannot grow their own.

In Oregon, people can also possess eight ounces of usable marijuana in their homes and up to one ounce — enough for about 28 joints — on their person.

“People are very interested in growing their own plants,” said Flora Gibbs, owner of the Happy Hippy tobacco shop in Ontario. “I’ve had a lot of Idahoans asking about that, as well,” explaining to callers that it remains illegal to grow marijuana in Idaho.

No retail sales until October

Measure 91 also allows marijuana to be sold in retail stores to any adult customer 21 or older, not just Oregonians. That won’t happen this summer. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which is overseeing retail sales, will not begin accepting applications from those wanting to sell pot until January. Retail store sales are not expected to begin until fall 2016, said Tom Towslee, an OLCC spokesman.

However, the Oregon Legislature two weeks ago passed a bill that Gov. Kate Brown later signed into law that allows medical marijuana dispensaries to sell to all adults 21 and older beginning Oct. 1. The state has already licensed more than 300 of these stores, according to The Oregon Medical Marijuana Dispensary Program. Adults will be allowed to buy a quarter-ounce of marijuana per day from the medical marijuana dispensaries, along with seeds and immature plant starts, under the early purchase program.

Some counties, cities can ban sales

It is unclear whether Idaho residents will be able to buy marijuana legally without having to drive 130 miles from Ontario in Malheur County to Bend in Central Oregon. Under the same bill signed into law by Brown, cities and counties where at least 55 percent of voters cast ballots against the marijuana measure can ban retail and medical marijuana sales.

Fifteen counties meet the threshold, including Malheur, where nearly 69 percent of voters disapproved. All the counties are east of the Cascade Mountains.

“If the city fathers and county commissioners follow the vote at the general election, it’s going to be hard for Idahoans,” Towslee said. “It’s sure a long way to Bend.”

Sales unlikely in Malheur County

Malheur County commissioners are almost certain to ban sales. Any suggestion that shops in rural portions of Malheur County — population 31,470 — will get the chance to sell marijuana will “go down in flames,” said Dan Joyce, the chairman of the Malheur County Board of Commissioners.

Uncertainty in Ontario

Mayor Ronald Verini of Ontario, Malheur County’s largest city with a population of 11,465, said he’s not sure what the seven-member city council will do.

“How it turns out is anyone’s guess,” Verini said. “But I think the bottom line on this whole thing is that we want to do what we feel is best for the community. We want to do it with the understanding that public safety is A Number One in whatever decision we make.”

If Malheur County, Ontario and the country’s four other incorporated cities – Vale, Nyssa, Adrian and Jordan Valley – ban sales, Verini said authorities will still have to deal with residents having the legal right to grow marijuana and to smoke it at homes. “Even if we opt out, there still is, in general, the legalization of the product,” Verini said.

Ontario store swamped with calls

Since marijuana became legal to possess and consume, the phone at the Happy Hippy has been ringing off the hook. Gibbs and her clerks have been fielding up to 50 calls a day from people wanting to know where they can buy marijuana and whether the store on Ontario’s east end sells it.

The store, which has been open for four years, doesn’t sell marijuana. It does offer glass pipes, vaporizers, grinders and rolling papers that could be used for marijuana, and Gibbs is interested in opening a medical marijuana dispensary if the city doesn’t ban dispensaries and retail pot shops.

“I’m going to wait and see what my city council members do,” said Gibbs, who lives in Ontario. “This has not been an easy task for our councilmen. They’ve had a lot to deal with from both sides, those who want it and those who don’t.

Echoing Verini’s thoughts, Gibbs, a Fruitland native whose husband grew up in Ontario, said public safety is her main concern.

“Whatever they decide to go with, we are OK with,” she said. “We’re going to do what the city says to do. This is our community and we’d like to make sure our community is safe, first and foremost.”

Taxes could add 20 percent to cost

Under the legislation passed last week, the state will impose a sales tax of 17 percent on marijuana sales. Local governments can add a 3 percent tax with voter approval.

The Oregon Legislative Revenue Office said the sales tax will produce more than $30 million in annual revenue.

The ironic part is that even counties and cities that ban retail sales will share in the profits. Counties and cities will each receive 10 percent of the taxes collected. Forty percent will go to the state school fund; 20 percent to mental health, drug and alcohol treatment programs; 15 percent to the Oregon State Police and 5 percent fund a substance-abuse prevention campaign.

Ontario has a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries that is scheduled to be lifted in August. The city has designated a commercial zone on the city’s eastern flank next to the Snake River for medical dispensaries if the council does not ban them.

Ontario police to share information with Idaho officers

Mark Alexander, Ontario’s police chief, said there won’t be much pot going to Idaho from Malheur County without retail sales.

“You can give another person marijuana — that’s legal to do,” Alexander said. “We’ll probably have some Idaho residents that will come over here and receive marijuana. But once they go into the state of Idaho, they’re subject to their laws over there.”

Oregon decriminalized marijuana in 1973, making a violation a noncriminal offense similar to a traffic ticket. Idaho still considers cannabis possession a criminal offense. Possession of more than 3 ounces is a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Being under the influence of marijuana is public is a misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail.

Alexander said he plans to share information with Idaho police on Idaho residents found with marijuana in Ontario who may be returning to Idaho.

“Idaho law enforcement wants that information that people are going to be coming into their state with illegal marijuana,” Alexander said. “We’ll be working with Idaho officials on that.”

The Idaho State Police does expect more marijuana possessions by drivers entering Idaho from Oregon, spokeswoman Teresa Baker said. The volume has increased over the past five years, she said.

“ISP has not changed the manner in which we enforce the laws of the state of Idaho in response to the legalization of marijuana in any other state,” Baker said.

Likewise, the change won’t alter Canyon County’s enforcement of Idaho marijuana laws, county spokesman Joe Decker said.

No initial pot flood into North Idaho from Washington

Roger Lanier, interim police chief in Lewiston, said his department did not see a big increase in the number of people coming into his city with marijuana when Washington state began allowing retail sales in July 2014.

The city of Clarkston, across the Snake River from Lewiston, banned store sales and shut down a business, Canna4Life, which operated for seven days in June. A second shop, the Greenfield Co., opened late last month. The city later obtained a restraining order, forcing that shop to close, as well.

“State law says it’s legal there, but it’s not being as freely distributed — at this point — as I think everyone expected it to be,” Lanier said. “So we haven’t really seen this great increase.”

Washington voters in November 1998 authorized patients with certain medical conditions to begin using marijuana, and that created a greater impact for Lewiston police, Lanier said.

“Washington has had medical marijuana legal for a number of years. So when the vote by the people to legalize (recreational) marijuana happened, I think we didn’t see a difference, because we already saw that difference created by the availability of medical marijuana.”

Lewiston police have dealt with a number of Idaho and Washington residents who either don’t understand the laws of the two states or try to fool officers into thinking they’re oblivious.

“It happens all the time. People come over, we have a contact with them, we find marijuana and they pull out their medical marijuana card or they say ‘I’m a Washington resident,’ like that trumps Idaho law,” Lanier said. “We tell them it doesn’t matter. You’re not in Washington, you’re in Idaho, and in Idaho it’s illegal to possess marijuana.

“I don’t know if they are really that ignorant or if they’re just hoping we’re ignoring it because they’re a Washington resident.”

Could Eastern Oregon benefit from sales to Idahoans?

Bolstered by sales to Oregonians, Main Street Marijuana in Vancouver was Washington’s leading cannabis seller by far in May, according to figures from the Washington State Liquor Control Board. Main Street Marijuana sold $1.8 million worth of marijuana in May, generating $438,227 in state and local taxes. It was the third month in a row the company topped the list.

The second-leading retailer, Ocean Greens in Seattle, sold $637,786 worth of marijuana. No. 3, Sativa Sisters in Spokane, had sales of $517,565.

Main Street owner Ramsey Hamide told The Oregonian that probably half of his store’s business comes from Oregon residents.

Boise resident Bill Esbensen believes Ontario and Malheur County would benefit greatly from the influx of Idaho residents and others entering Oregon on the eastern border if retail sales of marijuana were allowed. But he doesn’t expect that to happen.

“I think there will be a lot of Eastern Oregon that will opt out,” Esbensen said.

Esbensen was the owner of the 45th Parallel Group, which operated a medical marijuana dispensary on Ontario’s west side from 2010 until it was shut down by police in November 2013. He was later convicted of racketeering, conspiracy and delivery of marijuana. He served nearly five months in jail.

Esbensen belongs to a group, New Approach Idaho, that is circulating petitions to get a marijuana measure on the 2016 ballot. The measure would decriminalize possession of up to three ounces of marijuana, legalize medical marijuana and establish an industrial hemp program. The group needs to collect signatures from 47,623 registered voters by April 30 to qualify for the ballot.

In nine weeks of canvassing, the group has collected between 5,000 and 7,000 signatures, Esbensen said.

“I really believe that attitudes have shifted and people see marijuana as a medicine,” he said.

Concerns among medical pot advocates

Ontario resident Stormy Ray, who was co-chief petitioner for the 1998 ballot measure that established Oregon’s medical marijuana program, said medical patients were shoved aside as Oregon rushed to establish its recreational marijuana program. Medical marijuana advocates were told the passage of Measure 91 would not affect the medical program, she said, but through the banning of both recreational and medical marijuana shops in Eastern Oregon, it will make it difficult for patients to obtain their medicine.

Medical marijuana can be used in Oregon to treat cancer, glaucoma, agitation due to Alzheimer’s disease, HIV and AIDS and post-traumatic stress disorder. Additionally, it can be used for medical conditions that cause severe pain, severe nausea, seizures or persistent muscle spasms. Patients must obtain prescriptions from a physician.

“Medical marijuana may not be a cure, but for many people it gives them a relief that allows them a better quality of life,” said Ray, who uses medical marijuana in the treatment of multiple sclerosis.