Curry County commissioners agreed last week to place a question on the May ballot asking voters if they should tax marijuana growers to fund law enforcement.

The topic was brought up in a meeting three weeks ago when Josephine County Commissioner Dan DeYoung outlined a Law Enforcement Stability Act proposal he hopes the state legislature will consider to tax large-scale commercial growers by the size of their canopy crops and smaller growers by the number of plants they have.

He originally proposed the tax to affect five counties in Southern Oregon, but that has been changed to expand it statewide, said county Director of Operations Julie Schmelzer, who spent the past 2.5 years working for Josephine County.

Josephine County voters narrowly rejected a ballot question asking to legalize recreational marijuana, but voters statewide overwhelmingly approved it; that county spent the next two years scrambling to put in place regulations.

In the meantime, the prime growing conditions in the valley enticed thousands of people to being farming marijuana — much of it illegally — which presented numerous problems for law enforcement.

DeYoung said officers don’t have time to respond to complaints about growers in residential neighborhoods — or even to reports of theft from the growers themselves. Other places in the county are just too dangerous to send an officer, he said.

“They’re not anti-marijuana; they realize the value of marijuana,” Schmelzer said. “But when (Josephine County) hit the ‘green rush,’ a lot of people from out of the area were coming in. It really disrupted neighborhoods. People were moving away, complaining about gunfire, cars all night. Growers were asking for protection and the sheriff couldn’t provide it. There was no law enforcement to respond.”

Commissioners Court Boice and Chris Paasch said this week that Curry County needs to act proactively to avoid such problems, which are also taking place in the “Emerald Triangle” in Humboldt County, infamous for its bountiful, high-quality marijuana crops.

“Curry County is pretty quiet right now,” Boice said. “But do we have illegal growers? Will we have illegal growers?”

He noted, too, that while Curry County might not raise a substantial amount of revenue with such a tax, officials here should support Josephine County because the support they could provide with other regional issues such as public lands management, salmon enhancement and tourism promotion.

Questioning ‘facts’

Not everyone greeted the proposal with equal enthusiasm.

Gold Beach resident David Barnes said DeYoung’s figures were highly exaggerated and that Curry County, with so few growers, wouldn’t make nearly as much money as the commissioner claimed.

“He’s still fighting Reefer Madness wars,” Barnes said, referring to the 1936 film depicting teens lured to use pot and going on to commit heinous crimes. “It’s the old West again, with cattle barons coming in, buying all the law enforcement officers and knocking over people they don’t like.”

When asked, Barnes told commissioners he has no stake in the marijuana industry.

“It affects me because I’m a citizen,” he said, “and I’m seeing my fellow Curry County citizens having (laws) forced upon them based on lies.”

Barnes said DeYoung cherry-picked his information to show that Curry County could benefit from taxing commercial grows.

New figures from the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) released Tuesday show Curry County’s medical marijuana patients have dropped from 330 to 287 in the last quarter, he noted.

“How can this be a stability act when it’s already based on a continually eroding source?” Barnes asked. “Participation in all facets of the OMMP has declined approximately 60 percent since legalization in 2015 — 40 percent in 2018 alone. (DeYoung) said $180,000 (in revenue for Curry County); this county would be lucky to get $20,000. The program is rapidly expiring and then your tax (revenue) is gone.”

Barnes said Curry’s 143 grow sites represent 1 percent of all sites in the state. Of the 13,000 to 14,000 statewide sites — the figures vary on state websites — 93 percent are grown for use for one to two patients, he said, excluding them from taxation.

“So, we would actually have a maximum of 10 taxable grow sites, servicing a grand total of 14 patients with six plants each at $50 a plant,” Barnes said. “That equals $4,200 of new tax revenue which, according to the Senate and House bills, would not be paid into the county’s general fund or sheriff’s account, but into a statewide law enforcement trust fund from which the sheriff could apply for money. This is a far cry from the $99,000 Commissioner DeYoung suggested Curry could both collect and keep.”

Only 59 percent of state patients have a registered grow site, which extrapolates to 13.6 patients using growers that could be taxed.

He said, too, that would-be growers can’t get started because there are so few state inspectors to get this far south, and that many dispensaries obtain their product from out-of-county.

“Curry County isn’t even in the top 10 producers in Oregon,” Barnes said.

County commissioners agreed, however, that while the county’s geography isn’t the best for growing marijuana, taxing grows could be one more piece in the puzzle to generate revenue for the sheriff’s office.

Others noted that Curry County has bigger problems than those that might result because of marijuana.

“Medical marijuana is not going to give you the money to support law enforcement,” said Curry County resident Carol Leighton. “This is not our problem; we have enough problems of our own. We don’t need to support Josephine and Jackson county jackboots that want to change the laws of this state.”