BEND, Ore. -

It was a debate as passionate as it was controversial.

"For people with epilepsy, this is a life-or-death issue," a woman testified before Deschutes County commissioners Monday morning.
 
"We have enough trashy-looking places in Deschutes County as it is," said county resident Gladys Biglor.

And despite a steady parade of medical cannabis supporters pleading county commissioners to not place a county-wide ban on medical marijuana shops, the commissioners voted 3-0 to place a temporary ban on the shops in unincorporated areas of the county.

The voice of the county's district attorney and sheriff weighed heavily.

"It is the most important thing facing our society today," said Sheriff Larry Blanton. "Our quality of life, our children's safety depends strongly on our restriction of medical marijuana."

County commissioners reasoned patients do have access to the dispensaries in Bend, and noted that standard medical clinics or hospitals are rarely found in very rural areas.

It  was a disappointment for Alfalfa resident Chris Worsley, who says he moved to Oregon from Georgia so he could legally smoke medical marijuana.

"I have to drive all the way to Bend to just get my medicine, so that kind of saddens me," Worsley said.

But other Alfalfa residents said they worry their distance from law enforcement could mean less protection.

"I'm concerned that these businesses could become magnets for criminals, which in turn will decrease the safety of my neighborhood," Alfalfa resident Julie Spackman said.

The commissioners' vote is a win for those in favor of caution.

"It allows more time for Deschutes County citizens to weigh in on the issue," Biglor said.

But it's also another hurdle for those who say the stigma of medical marijuana is still very real.

"There is a strong sense of fear that drives the politics of this decision," Bloom Well owner Jeremy Kwit said. "I feel like the commissioners already had their minds made up before the hearing."

The state-set, one-year window – requiring interested local governments to impose such a moratorium by May 1, good for only a year – came from a compromise reached by state lawmakers in the final days of this year’s short session that just wrapped up a couple weeks ago. (It also means they will revisit the whole issue at next year's full session.)

To be clear, this does not affect incorporated cities, such as the shops that have opened in Bend, only rural areas of the county. Bend officials have not indicated a desire to move in this direction, while Redmond and Sisters are looking at similar moves.

County commissioners not only heard from several residents who say they and their loved ones and the people they care for benefit from the medical effects of cannabis – but also from the county’s top prosecutor  who cited the many negative effects of more widespread availability of pot, especially for young people.

“I urge you to declare a moratorium, at least until such time as effective regulations of such facilities are promulgated that adequately protect public safety,” said a letter from District Attorney Patrick Flaherty, read into the record by Commissioner Tammy Baney.

Flaherty and Blanton said marijuana “is the most commonly abused illegal drug,” with use rates up substantially in recent years. They also said more young people are in treatment for marijuana dependency than alcohol and all other drugs, and cited the impact on the still-developing adolescent brain, from poor grades and falling behind in school to more car crashes, the onset of “major mental illness” and making addiction to other drugs more likely.

Blanton said medical marijuana cardholders have grown more than 1,000 percent in seven years, to more than 3,100 as of January.

“These cards are extremely easy to obtain, and controlling who has access and is approved is impossible.”

Commissioner Alan Unger said he has a friend with cancer using medical marijuana for symptoms, “so I recognize there is a need out there.” But he said lawmakers had provided the one-year moratorium option to put in place better ways to manage the time, place or manner such dispensaries do business.

Commissioners also noted there are numerous places within cities such as Bend – not affected by the county ordinance – for those who wish to access medical marijuana.

Baney said she has “no doubt in my mind” that “there is a necessity and is a value for medical marijuana.”

However, she added, “I think in rural areas of Deschutes County, and many counties – those aren’t where you’d find services like medical facilities.”

So with that focus – on coming up with proper rules for rural areas -- commissioners sidestepped many of the most intensely personal positive and negative views shared by many in the packed audience on the topic.

Jessica Jacks, prevention coordinator for Deschutes County, raised many of the issues the sheriff and DA did, also noting that “there are more 12- to 17-year-olds in Oregon using marijuana than any other state."

She went beyond what commissioners were taking up and urged limits on packaging, marketing and other aspects to limit the access and attractiveness to young people of items such as marijuana-infused lollipops, sodas or candy bars.

Robert Gordon, a retired firefighter, sounded a theme echoed by many, noting the many problems with alcohol, among both young people and adults, as being “a whole bunch worse.” And when it comes to marijuana, he said, federal law “is going to change, almost for sure.”

Many in the audience also said banning medical marijuana shops in rural areas mean people who need it for medical use may continue turning to underground sources with more danger and less quality control for what it is “cut” or mixed with, even pesticides or other chemicals.

But Barbara Stoefen of the Meth Action Coalition (which is “no longer just about meth”) said she’s “very, very concerned about the low perception of marijuana” among young people.

“We try to teach that addiction to marijuana is real, at approximately the same rate as hard alcohol” – about one in 10 users become dependent, she said.

Stoefen said she voted in favor of legalizing marijuana, to provide a way those with severe, chronic diseases could seek relief. “At no time was it intended to be what it is today,” with 60,000 cardholders around the state, and the average cardholder in their 30s without a severe illness, she claimed, adding that “not one medical specialty endorses medical marijuana, nor does the AMA.”

“If it’s medicine, let’s make it medicine,” she said, noting that only 10 percent of physicians have provided it to patients. “I think we need to take a breath, stand back, wait and watch, and make really, really good decisions.”

Jo Zachary, a medical marijuana patient, said she had a brain aneurysm and a coma from “nasty pesticide exposure,” that that conventional medicine doesn’t help her. She depends on CBD, a non-psycho-active component of marijuana, that she’d prefer to get in pill form from a pharmacist, but can’t. “It’s keeping me alive,” she said.

Others said education is the problem for children, and that the media and others partake in “fear-mongering” about negative impacts, thus putting more people at risk.

“To deny someone medicine in any way, shape or form is just wrong,” said William Kemp.

The debate over these issues, nationally and in Deschutes County, won’t end any time soon. County planners will be working on the issue in coming months.