Pendleton was within one vote of not seeing the legalization of marijuana sales on the ballot.
After initially siding in October 2015 with the majority to draft an ordinance that would ban marijuana sales outright, Councilor Chuck Wood changed his mind after receiving an outpouring of support to put the issue to voters.
Without the necessary five votes to pass an ordinance, the councilors that supported the ban reluctantly changed their vote and unanimously agreed to refer it to the ballot.
Despite playing a pivotal role in bringing the issue to Pendleton voters and having no regrets about his decision, Wood remains firm in his personal opposition to marijuana sales. He remains unconvinced that the tax money Pendleton would get from marijuana dispensaries would bring significant revenue and said he would need to see more empirical evidence that pot shops would be beneficial to the community before he could support it.
Two years after Umatilla County voters rejected Measure 91 and marijuana legalization, voters in Pendleton, Hermiston and Milton-Freewater will get now get a chance to have their say on both medical and recreational marijuana sales in their communities.
Will the two years between Measure 91 and these local ballot initiatives represent a sea change in public opinion on marijuana, or will voters like Wood remain steadfast in their opposition to retail marijuana?
Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University, leans toward the latter scenario.
“It hasn’t really become a part of the culture in the same way as the local liquor store,” he said.
The fact that many local voters still aren’t personally familiar with dispensaries will work against the referendum’s passage, Moore said. According to a study by DHM Research, only 7 percent of people statewide have purchased recreational marijuana at a retail store.
Another factor that could work against it is a lack of campaign visibility — among the dozens of communities across the state with marijuana ballot issues, Moore said it’s rare to see campaign signs for or against it.
That’s certainly true of the three local cities, where signs for the Umatilla County sheriff’s race and even Owyhee Canyonlands monument are ubiquitous while marijuana-related signs are virtually nonexistent.
But while the vote in Hermiston and Milton-Freewater was within 1 percent of the county average, only 55.9 percent of voters in Pendleton cast a ballot against Measure 91. Moore said that gap is easier for pro-marijuana voters to close.
Having the issue appear on the ballot with a presidential election also works in its favor because Democrats, typically a more marijuana-friendly group, turn out in higher numbers during those elections.
Despite all three communities putting marijuana sales to a vote at the same time, they’ll appear on the ballot slightly differently.
Pendleton voters will get three questions — one on repealing the ban on recreational marijuana sales, another on repealing the medical marijuana sales ban and another on imposing a 3 percent tax on recreational marijuana sales.
Milton-Freewater has paired the question of medical and recreational marijuana retail bans together and also includes a second question for the 3 percent tax.
Hermiston has one question about the ban on medical and recreational marijuana but does not include a question on sales tax.
Proponents point out that a tax on marijuana could be a boon for small communities. According to The Oregonian, the state has taken in $33.5 million in tax revenue from January through the end of August.
In addition to the state’s 25 percent tax, 10 percent of which goes to local law enforcement in cities with legal marijuana sales, voters can impose their own local 3 percent tax. Those dollars would go straight to city coffers.
Even though many Umatilla County residents may not have first-hand knowledge of the marijuana retail industry, the surrounding area has made it easier than ever for them to buy cannabis legally, provided they don’t mind a drive.
Recreational dispensaries can be found two hours east in Huntington or two hours west in The Dalles, and medical dispensaries can be found even closer in La Grande. Several medical and recreational dispensaries can be found in Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities, although bringing marijuana back across state borders is a federal crime.
The November vote — no matter the outcome — won’t affect the legal status of marijuana in any city. It will still be legal to consume, possess and grow marijuana for personal use.
It’s difficult to prognosticate the outcome of the elections because there’s a dearth of data from Eastern Oregon.
The DHM study surveyed 150 people living outside the Willamette Valley on their opinions on marijuana sales and found that 50 percent had a positive view on the impact of recreational marijuana legalization, 54 percent opposed a ban on marijuana retail and 73 percent supported taxing marijuana.
However, the area outside the valley covers a politically diverse landscape, including eight counties that voted in favor of Measure 91.
Putting the data and political science aside, Hermiston City Councilor Doug Primmer anticipates it will be a close race in his city, a battle of wills between younger pro-marijuana voters and older anti-cannabis voters.
“It won’t be runaway either way,” he said.
Primmer, like Chuck Wood, also voted to put retail sales to voters despite personally opposing marijuana use.
Ballots will start going out to voters Oct. 19.
Contact Antonio Sierra at email@example.com or 541-966-0836.