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County must interpret marijuana ordinance

It can’t be said that Curry County Attorney Jerry Herbage didn’t warn county commissioners what they were getting themselves into Monday morning.

“You’ll be sitting like judges or juries today,” he told them in a special board meeting. “This is an exercise in interpreting an ordinance.”

At issue was the appeal of a denial of an application to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Wedderburn, and the appeal was based on missing wordage in a section of county law regarding such businesses in unincorporated Curry County. 

The ordinance indicates that only employees and volunteers — and not the owners — in medical marijuana dispensaries must pass a background check.

“It doesn’t say ‘owners’ in that section,” Herbage said. “It’s for you to interpret this ordinance. One could conclude that ‘owners’ have the standard set for the state of Oregon.”

John Earl Crumrine applied to open a medical marijuana facility this year. He’s paid thousands of dollars in application fees, for security, product checks — and now lawyer fees — in hopes of opening Club Sockeye and helping some of the 1,200 people he’s assisted in obtaining medical marijuana cards over the years.

But Crumrine also has a criminal history that includes counts of manufacture and delivery of Schedule I and II drugs — the latest was from 15 years ago.

Because of that history — and despite the fact the state of Oregon approved his background check — Public Services Director David Pratt denied the application.

Discussion in the meeting came down to the “intent” commissioners had when they crafted the ordinance in March, and not what the document actually reads.

“It only applies to employees and volunteers,” said Crumrine’s attorney, Nathan Garcia. “It says (the application) ‘may’ be denied. It’s discretionary. It allows for background checks as a requirement, but doesn’t list the criteria for denial. And he applied for, and passed, the background check for the state.”

When a county ordinance doesn’t address an issue, the ordinance usually defaults to state law; many laws are written with that in mind. And oftentimes, owners have nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of companies, Herbage noted.

Curry County commissioners agreed, 2-1, with Commissioner Susan Brown in the minority, to uphold Pratt’s decision, saying it was their intent, when drafting the ordinance, that all involved would have to pass background checks.

Brown said she believed Crumrine’s business should be grandfathered in and allowed to open, citing the error in the ordinance. Commissioners can amend the law to correct that loophole.

Commissioner David Brock Smith didn’t agree.

“We went through quite a lengthy process to be one of a few counties in Oregon to allow dispensaries for patients in Curry County,” he said. “I believe the owner should be held to a higher standard than an employee. We must adhere to the intent of the laws we created. We’re in uncharted territory.”

“It’s an unfortunate circumstance,” said Commissioner David Itzen. “Mr. Crumrine’s record is clean. Since 1999, he’s done a good job of being a good citizen. But we have to look at our intent of the ordinance. We have to hold the owner at least as responsible as the employee.”

Brown noted that the intent wasn’t spelled out; Smith said it was inferred. Brown said she wasn’t comfortable inferring something in a law.

“Intent, infer — those are very subjective words,” she said.

Crumrine hasn’t decided if he’s going to pursue the second denial to circuit court.

He’s been through this before, in 2011, when he owned Gold Beach Cannabis Services, which provided “small amounts of medicine” for patients, but primarily helped people obtain their medical marijuana cards. Crumrine stayed open, while others throughout the state closed after the Attorney General threatened to seize their assets if they didn’t cease operations immediately.

“I’ve spent $30,000 on this, and then to have them turn around and say I need to pass a county background check — I can’t keep going,” he said. “I can’t keep investing. I’ve got to put food on the table, I’ve got to pay bills. If they prefer people buy their stuff off the streets, then that’s what they prefer.”

He said that he, of all people, is hypervigilant about obeying the law because of his criminal past.

“I’m trying to do the right thing,” he said of following the dispensary laws. “Every time I turn around I’ve had to pay and pay and pay and pay. Pretty soon, it seems like that’s all they want, is to make you jump through hoops and charge some more money.”

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