Two code changes now under consideration by Salem City Council could radically alter the way the City treats cannabis businesses.

The first would have the city stop regulating cannabis businesses such as dispensaries—requiring them only to be licensed, and the second would allow pot to be grown in more places in city limits.

Among other effects of the first ordinance, Bill 12-16, would be to abolish the city’s requirement that pot dispensaries keep a 1,000-foot distance between each other.

Oregon allows cities to set their own cannabis rules. At the June 27, 2016 council meeting, when council was conducting a public hearing to determine how to amend the existing medical marijuana facility licensing program and add a recreational marijuana facility licensing program, Ward 4 Councilor Steve McCoid made a motion that was seconded by Ward 7 Councilor Warren Bednarz. McCoid’s motion was for staff to work on replacing all the proposed regulations and replace them with a simple registration requirement.

Limiting the City’s involvement to just registration of businesses would leave regulations and enforcement in the hands of state agencies, primarily the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), which is in charge of medicinal and recreational cannabis operations across the state.

McCoid explains his idea would save overstressed city staff and police redundant work. “I’ve dealt with the OLCC in my past,” he says, “and it does a good job handling and regulating alcohol for us. It got so complicated…I just thought, we shouldn’t be in the business of doing the job of someone who can do it a whole lot better.”

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If the ordinance passed, it would void the city’s “locational” restrictions. Currently, the city requires dispensaries to be located at least 1,000 feet from schools, parks, Head Start facilities, and other dispensaries. Except for the requirement to keep away from K-12 schools, those restrictions will be eliminated if the proposed ordinance is approved.

“For the most part the locational restrictions were there to ensure that the City’s licensing program was consistent with the guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Justice,” says City of Salem Attorney, Daniel B. Atchison.

The City’s current licensing program, Atchison continues, “is largely redundant to the system established by the Oregon Health Authority, and the program being established by the OLCC.  Removing the City’s licensing program for medical marijuana, and not establishing a licensing program for recreational marijuana sales, will benefit the City by eliminating a duty to perform a regulatory function that is already being performed by the State.”

Some existing dispensaries are concerned by the idea that there would be no limits at all on how many businesses could set up shop on Salem streets. They point to Portland, which noticed an oversaturation of businesses in 2015. Last fall Portland (which previously required no buffer between marijuana retailers) enacted a 1,000-foot rule for the first time, to prevent clustering.

Cindy Cusick, co-owner of Herbal Grasslands, a medicinal dispensary on South Commercial that has been open since March 2014, finds the possibility of a marijuana free-for-all in Salem troubling. She says the new rule, if passed, “is going to change the look of Salem. There may be four, five, six stores in one block.”

If the ordinance becomes law, Cusick fears that black market money and out-of-state interests would be free to hang out shingles in multiple locations—even right next door to the local dispensaries that have worked for years to establish clientele, product lines, and experienced staff. “I know of one realtor,” Cusick says, “who owns a lot of strip malls in town, and is already inviting people to set up in her malls.”

Cusick believes “the OLCC has no motive to control growth, because they get an average of $4,750 per application.” She is also unconvinced that the OLCC has the interest or means to control the behavior of the facilities it approves. “They don’t close down bars very often, even for very poor behavior and after many, many complaints.”

Margo Lucas, grower and owner of Alternative Relief Clinic and West Salem Cannabis, is also concerned about the potential loss of the 1,000-foot rule. “We are asking the City to ease restrictions in a way that makes sense for all,” she says. An ambassador between local cannabis businesses and Salem city government, Lucas cautions that “market saturation will cause our growing industry to struggle to compete against the black market.”

The second of the two ordinances Salem city council is considering, Bill 16-111, would increase the places where cannabis could be grown into new business zones (zoning can be examined on the City of Salem website.)

Currently the city allows “grows” in areas zoned for General Industrial and Exclusive Farm Use, as well as in an “Intensive Industrial” zone for which land in the city is not currently zoned. The new ordinance would allow marijuana grows to do business in Industrial Commercial and Industrial Park zones. Somewhat extraneously, it would also keep dispensaries out of Salem’s downtown.