Oregon Cities

Cannabis industry looks to expand into eastern Oregon’s biggest city through public vote

As the industry expands in Oregon, more people are paying attention to the environmental impact of cultivating cannabis.

As the industry expands in Oregon, more people are paying attention to the environmental impact of cultivating cannabis.

Alan Sylvestre / OPB

A Portland cannabis entrepreneur wants to expand his business into Hermiston. But he’ll need to win an election first.

Jeremy Archie is behind an initiative petition to end the ban on cannabis sales in Hermiston. While the debate over legalizing cannabis is long over, Archie is attempting to undo one of the many local prohibitions that popped up following the passage of Measure 91 in 2014.

While the initiative won’t be set for the November ballot until the signatures are verified, Archie is confident. His team expected to submit more than 2,000 signatures on Friday, far more than the 1,614 needed to trigger an election.

Archie splits his time between his home in Portland and his cannabis farm in southern Oregon while also managing his dispensary in eastern Oregon, Ontario’s Treasure Valley Cannabis Co. Ontario has become one of the busiest cannabis markets in the state because of its proximity to the rapidly growing Boise metro area, where Idaho state law continues to ban cannabis. Archie thinks Hermiston has similar potential to attract out-of-state customers, but this time, from Washington.

Cannabis industry finds opportunity at Oregon’s borders

Washington legalized recreational cannabis before Oregon did, but Archie said Oregon’s dispensaries have a few built-in advantages. Oregon offers a better consumer experience, he said, because Washington state law requires all retail cannabis to be prepackaged while Oregon customers can look at and smell the product directly. Additionally, Washington taxes cannabis at a higher rate, meaning Oregon dispensaries can offer their products at a lower price.

While Hermiston is the largest city in eastern Oregon, Archie’s interest also revolves around the city’s proximity to southeast Washington. Less than an hour’s drive away from Hermiston is the Tri-Cities, a Washington metro area with more than 220,000 people.

“It’s hard for us because so many other jurisdictions are so saturated and just struggling to keep their doors open,” Archie said. “A market like Ontario makes a ton of sense. Hermiston is skipped, it’s absolutely bypassed, people (are) forced to go to Pendleton.”

Oregon owes its patchwork of legal cannabis markets to the way the Legislature implemented legalization following the passage of Measure 91. Possessing, consuming and growing cannabis would remain legal throughout the state. But local governments could prohibit cannabis retailers from opening in their cities and counties.

Dozens of cities and counties across the state moved quickly to opt out of cannabis sales, while several others threw it to voters to decide, including Hermiston and neighboring Pendleton. On the same night Hermiston voters banned cannabis sales, Pendleton voters approved it.

One of the residents who supported the effort to legalize cannabis retail in Pendleton was Brandon Krenzler, who co-founded one of the city’s first dispensaries: Kind Leaf Pendleton. Krenzler sold his stake in Kind Leaf late last year, but he sees savvy in Archie’s vision for Hermiston.

“I think that’s a pretty smart move,” he said. ”There’s been a lot of people over the years who have talked about trying to get Hermiston to open up. And everybody always said it would take a lot of money to do that.”

When Kind Leaf opened its doors in 2017, Krenzler said it got a good deal of traffic from customers from Idaho and Washington. But Kind Leaf’s Idaho customer base dwindled as Ontario’s cannabis market grew. He said he could see a similar trend happening with Washington customers should the ballot measure pass.

Krenzler noted that the federal government recently began the process of rescheduling cannabis, a move that could open the door to more research on the drug and fewer barriers in legal markets. He said Hermiston should keep this development in mind, and he anticipated more corporate participation in the cannabis industry as federal rules begin to change.

“I think that Hermiston needs to look at the fact that stronger, more observed regulation will be coming soon,” he said. “Either it’s going to be a local shop or it’s going to be a Rite Aid. Somebody’s going to have cannabis in their community sooner or later and they probably want at least a couple of local people to have it.”

Hermiston ‘values’ face a vote

But before any of this can happen, Hermiston voters need to approve the ballot measure first. Archie said he intends to invest in a campaign to promote the ballot measure and find allies in the community to support it. But he shouldn’t expect much help from the Hermiston City Council.

The Hermiston City Council considered putting cannabis sales back on the ballot in March after a recent round of survey results showed a majority of residents favored taxing cannabis sales should it be legalized. But the council ultimately balked at the idea as the boards for the local school district and hospital lined up against it.

One of those who opposed lifting the ban was Hermiston City Councilor Doug Primmer, who will become mayor next year. He said the residents he’s talked to aren’t interested in opening up Hermiston to cannabis sales.

“They don’t find it to be among our values as a city,” he said. “And I agree with that.”

Primmer worked for 30 years as a correctional officer for the Oregon Department of Corrections and he still serves as a reserve deputy for the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office. He said his years in law enforcement have shown him that cannabis threatens public health by feeding addiction and acting as a “gateway drug” to harder substances.

Experts say that most people can consume cannabis without facing negative consequences, but others do develop addictions, especially as cannabis becomes more potent. A 2020 study states that the likelihood of addiction to hard drugs relies on a variety of genetic and environmental factors, but for some at-risk individuals, cannabis use can increase the risk of opioid use disorder, although “much more research is needed.”

Primmer said he feels the same way about cannabis that he does about tobacco and alcohol: Although they’re all legal, he doesn’t want to see their availability increase in Hermiston.

And although he won’t be supporting the legalization of cannabis sales, Primmer said he won’t go against the will of the voters should they feel differently. If the ballot measure passes, he would do the requisite work to lift the ban.

“I don’t have to like it, but I will do it,” he said.

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