Hermiston Council Declines to Put Cannabis Sales on November Ballot

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The Hermiston City Council voted 7-1 during Monday’s regular meeting to take no action on drafting and submitting a commercial cannabis measure for voters’ consideration on the November ballot.

The vote came after nearly two hours of public and councilors’ comments in which the majority of those speaking opposed putting the measure on the ballot.

Hermiston voters affirmed a local ban on commercial marijuana sales in 2017 after a statewide measure legalized marijuana sales and use in 2014. The concept of bringing a measure to Hermiston voters was discussed again in 2023 as part of the city’s efforts to close a budget gap of more than $900,000.

A survey conducted in the fall with 425 people participating showed 75 percent of those responding said a cannabis tax should be considered.

In a staff report, City Manager Byron Smith said the city could get approximately $400,000 per year after three years from the first business opening if a 3% tax rate on the retail sale of marijuana is approved. Smith, however, also said that the additional revenue was no longer necessary because the council approved budget cuts, new fees and increases in several existing fees to close the budget gap.

In the report, Smith said staff recommended against putting the question back on the ballot.

During open public comment at Monday’s meeting, representatives from the Hermiston School Board, Umatilla School Board, Good Shepherd Health System Board, and the Good Shepherd Community Foundation Board spoke against a measure because of marijuana use’s negative impact on youth and public health. Several other individuals testified in favor and against a ballot measure.

Hermiston School Board member James Hurst said the board is unanimously against legalizing cannabis sales in Hermiston.

“We are against any action that would result in getting pot shops closer to our kids,” he said.

Jon Lorence, chair of Good Shepherd Health Care System Board of Trustees, spoke on behalf of the trustees and the Good Shepherd Community Health Foundation.

“Both boards have discussed this potential ballot item and the consensus is that the legalization of commercial cannabis sales will further perpetuate its use, thus negatively impacting the health of our community and patients,” Lorence said.

Jenni Galloway, a Umatilla County employee who works with Hermiston School District opposed putting the ballot before voters. She said she has seen marijuana-caused depression in students.

“We are still in post-pandemic conditions and are trying to students back to attending school regularly and I feel this is not going to help that effort,” she said.

Liz Marvin, who owns property in Hermiston, presented signatures of people opposing the sale of marijuna in Hermiston to the council. They were collected by Dawn and Kelly Bissinger. On a personal point, Marvin said $400,000 in taxes would come from approximately $13 million in cannabis sales.

“Do we really want that level of impairment in our town?”

Hermiston resident Scott Wadekamper wondered why marijuana was being singled out as particularly harmful.

“I don’t think we’re talking about whether pot is dangerous or not,” he said. “We all know it’s dangerous. But you can’t make it illegal. It just doesn’t work. Cigarettes are dangerous, right? Coffee’s not the best. Wine, bourbon, whiskey, vodka – all that stuff’s not good for us, but you can’t take a person’s rights away from them. We tried to do this in 1920 with Prohibition for 13 years and it went to the underground. That’s the same thing that happens here.”

Hermiston resident Alberto Munoz said the topic of cannabis sales is a complex one.

“It’s a disservice to try to use fear when talking about cannabis use,” he said. “If we vote against this, the people that are going to be the happiest are the drug dealers in town. They’re the ones selling it to the minors. They’re the ones that are profiting from this.”

Councilor Nancy Peterson, who is running for mayor, noted the council regularly approves liquor licenses for bars and restaurants without any discussion. Peterson said they have a moral opposition to alcohol because they watched their father and three of his brothers “drink themselves to death. But I have a bigger moral obligation to the citizens about their ability to make choices about legally available substances and the processes and procedures that exist. That’s what my decision is going to be based on. Especially when we have asked a direct question and we have got a direct response. And that has nothing to do with tax revenue. It has to do with people being able to parent their kids.” Peterson said parents can teach their kids about the dangers of drugs and schools have curriculum on the topic.

“To get up here and say I have morals against this other substance I think would be a little hypocritical of me,” Peterson said. “We’ve asked direct questions of the citizens,” referring to the survey showing 75 percent in favor of putting the measure on the ballot. Peterson said the citizens “just want the right to make a choice.”

Councilor Maria Durón said she was concerned about the effects on young people.

“I think when I see some of the results of people starting to use marijuana, continue on with more powerful drugs, I see that in the young people,” she said. As for the survey results, Durón said 425 respondants is a small percentage of Hermiston’s population and not a good sample size.

Councilor Doug Primmer, who is also running for mayor, said his background in law enforcement leads him to oppose the sale of marijuana in Hermiston.

“I’ve seen how drugs have affected people,” he said. “Rarely are recreational drugs beneficial in any way, shape or form.” He acknowledged there is “anecdotal evidence” that marijuana has therapeutic value. “But I don’t think that as a council that we should give our tacit approval by putting this on the ballot after people have already spoken on this. It’s been voted on by the people numerous times.”

Another candidate for mayor, Councilor Jackie Linton, said she was ambivalent about the issue, but ultimately voted against putting the measure on the ballot.

Peterson was the only councilor to vote in favor of putting the measure on the ballot.

Citizen initiative petitions are available to residents during even-numbered years, meaning a Hermiston resident could gather enough signatures to put it on the ballot. A chief petitioner would need to collect approximately 1,625 signatures from Hermiston residents before June 7 to get a measure on the November 2024 ballot.

The city council meeting and discussion can be found online.

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