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Police pressure sways council's pot shift

Chief appeals to councilors at work session to keep code blocking marijuana business licenses

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - St. Helens Police Chief Terry Moss urges city councilors against allowing marijuana businesses to operate in St. Helens during a lightly attended work session on Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 12, in the council chambers at St. Helens City Hall.In a dramatic about-face only weeks after unanimously approving changes to the development code that would allow marijuana retailers and dispensaries to operate in commercial areas of the city, the St. Helens City Council took a step backward from allowing marijuana business in the city Wednesday, Aug. 12.

A draft ordinance to amend the city’s business license code, which currently states that licenses can be revoked or denied if there is a conflict with federal law, was set for first reading Wednesday evening, with a possible vote in Sept. 2. However, a divided council opted to table the ordinance during its afternoon work session.

Jacob Graichen, the city’s planning administrator, presented the draft ordinance — which is identical to an ordinance adopted by the Scappoose City Council last month — to the council at a lightly attended work session Wednesday afternoon.

Police chief: ‘Do we have time to wait?

The ordinance, as drafted, would specifically exempt marijuana businesses legal under the laws of Oregon — which allow licensed medical marijuana dispensaries and is set to allow retail marijuana sales beginning this fall — from the requirement that businesses comply with federal law, which continues to classify marijuana as an illegal drug.

But in an unusual move, St. Helens Police Chief Terry Moss took the podium at the work session, with a prepared speech in hand, in an effort to dissuade the councilors from amending the code.

Moss, an ardent opponent of marijuana legalization, compared the city’s treatment of marijuana businesses — which development code changes adopted by the City Council in June allow in commercial zones, with restrictions on how far they can operate from schools, preschools, daycares and other marijuana outlets — with its limits on “adult entertainment” venues, such as strip clubs, which are effectively boxed out of the city. He argued that the City Council decided not to allow those businesses based on the community’s values.

The police chief also cited statistics indicating that exposure to marijuana, driving under the influence of marijuana, and teenage use of marijuana have increased in Colorado since voters in that state opted to legalize the substance for recreational use in 2012. Furthermore, he argued that revenue from marijuana sales will not be sufficient to bolster police staffing to deal with the effects of marijuana legalization in St. Helens.

“I wonder if we, the city of St. Helens needs to be on the front edge of this issue,” Moss said. “Do we have time to wait? Should we wait and watch while other cities deal with this very same issue, and all of the issues that I brought before you?”

He concluded, “We can change the code today, allow the dispensaries to happen, and with that, we just cross our fingers, and then we wait. And that is the decision that’s up to you guys.”

Councilors deadlock on licensing issue

Moss’ appeal seemed to sway two of the four councilors present at Wednesday’s work session, both of whom had previously spoken favorably about the prospect of marijuana businesses coming into the city.

Councilor Keith Locke, who suggested in May that such businesses could “help” the city’s commercial development, said both the input from Moss and from the “Youth City Council” he set up earlier this year to bring teenage students into the civic process was persuasive to him.

“I’ve talked this over from Terry numerous times,” he said. “I’ve heard the speech three or four times. And I’ve talked about it with our youth council. Our youth council, they don’t see any need to have dispensaries in town. And so I’m kind of going to have to side with my police department and my youth council and say I don’t think we should have dispensaries in town. So as far as I’m concerned, I guess we can leave the code the way it is.”

Council President Doug Morten — presiding over the meeting in the absence of Mayor Randy Peterson, who is on vacation — sided with Locke, making an analogy to sailing and saying he was worried about venturing into “uncharted waters.”

“I would like to see the mayor weigh in on this as well,” Morten added.

Morten previously said in May that he believed it does not make sense for the city to treat liquor stores and marijuana outlets differently.

Councilors Ginny Carlson and Susan Conn indicated they preferred to go ahead with consideration of the draft ordinance and Carlson noting that a distinct majority of voters in St. Helens — about 58.6 percent across the election precincts St. Helens 1 through 9, according to official results — cast ballots last November in favor of Measure 91, which made marijuana legal for recreational use in Oregon.

By way of comparison, Peterson defeated Locke with 55.7 percent of the vote in St. Helens’ mayoral election last November.

“The law’s the law. Fifty-eight percent is 58 percent,” said Carlson. “I’ve spoken with people who suffer from debilitating, painful diseases that the only relief they get is from marijuana. ... I don’t think we can prevent businesses just because we don’t agree with what products we sell. So I don’t see any reason to wait. I think we let businesses be businesses, and if the community doesn’t want to support them, they’ll go away. Just like any other business — they don’t make their sales, they close up, they go away.”

Decision could come down to mayor

Peterson now appears to hold the deciding vote on the question of whether St. Helens’ business license ordinance will allow marijuana businesses to operate in the city. He previously told the Spotlight in June that he thinks the City Council will “have to somehow address it.” He also led the council’s pushback on a prior recommendation from the St. Helens Planning Commission that marijuana businesses be relegated to heavy industrial areas, saying he believes they would be most appropriate in St. Helens’ commercial areas, including the Houlton and Riverfront districts.

The council’s discussion of the business license issue came less than 24 hours after planning commissioners tentatively approved two conditional use permits for proposed medical marijuana dispensaries along Highway 30 and Columbia Boulevard. The permit process is separate from the business license issue, according to Graichen.

A representative of the applicant for those permits, dispensary manager Oscar Nelson, called the council’s delay “unacceptable” at the evening meeting.

“Please get this handled quickly,” Nelson said to the councilors. “I understand that your mayor’s gone, and you’re dragging your feet yet again on this. This needs to be resolved — for your people, for this city, for the state. Handle it.”

Morten predicted that the council will have a more definitive stance on whether it will allow marijuana businesses in St. Helens by October. A law signed this summer by Gov. Kate Brown allowing recreational marijuana sales by licensed retailers is set to take effect on Oct. 1.

Then and now: Councilor Keith Locke

  • “Maybe all the cities and all the counties should do a hundred-percent tax and send a statement that we don’t want this, period.” - Oct. 1, 2014, on placing a sales tax on marijuana retailers
  • “Out in the open is much better than being hidden somewhere. And our commercial needs all the help it can get.” - May 20, 2015, on allowing marijuana business in commercial zones
  • "...I don't think we should have dispensaries in town. So as far as I'm concerned, I guess we can leave the code the way it is.” - Aug. 12, 2015, on city code requiring businesses to follow federal law