EDITORIAL: Competing arguments lace marijuana measure debate

Ontario voters are having a second run at marijuana this election. This time, they’re voting whether to drop the city’s ban on recreational sales and open the town for business. The arguments for and against the measure range from reasoned to shrill. The choice for voters isn’t clear.

Those supporting the repeal argue that marijuana is legal to use in Oregon, and Ontario should get with the times. They say marijuana will provide the city an infusion of cash to expand or cover its costs. They say marijuana will bring a form of economic development in the form of new businesses and new jobs.

Those opposing the repeal say Ontario would become more famous for pot than onions, and that such a reputation will chase away would-be residents and business owners. They say increased access to marijuana means added medical and social costs in an already poor community.

Neither side is entirely persuasive. They rely on outdated information, research done elsewhere, or make claims that are speculative at best.

The single strongest reason to support the repeal is that marijuana is legal to buy and consume among adults in Oregon. Government already has too strong a hand in our lives, and you’d think a conservative community would be hesitant to let the government clamp off something that people have every legal right to use. People could make the individual choice whether to buy marijuana or not, just as they do with alcohol. One person’s choice not to buy ordinarily shouldn’t be transformed into a government policy to make everyone else obey that choice.

There are serious flaws in other claims, though. Promoting the marijuana business as some savior of local government is an empty gesture. That buys into the story line that city government is sorely strapped. Nonsense. City officials claimed all sorts of dire outcomes if the sales tax wasn’t passed. It failed, of course, and virtually nothing changed at City Hall.

The fear that young people will suddenly have open access to marijuana is an equally alarmist claim. A state study issued this summer found that one in five youth already live in homes where marijuana is used. What’s more, the state study found that after Oregon legalized marijuana, the risk of use by youth actually went down.

For Ontario, the real question is: Who’s served by this repeal?

The recent state study calculated that about 3 percent of Oregon’s population uses marijuana. That would mean for all of Malheur County, that would be about 900 people. It’s not like they don’t have access to marijuana now. First, they have the legal right to grow their own plants, unless landlords ban it. They have the right to head up the highway to Huntington to get it. In other words, Ontario marijuana users aren’t living in a place where marijuana just isn’t available.

Some contend that moving sales into legal store fronts would curb the black market. The state found that hasn’t happened in other areas of Oregon where recreational sales are legal. It’s no wonder. Those selling under the table have no overhead and they aren’t taxed. Opening up retail sales in Ontario would make only a negligible dent in that market.

What’s worse, though, is this repeal isn’t really meant to serve Ontario people. 

Marijuana business operators seem eager to set up the town as a depot to lure in and peddle to Idaho residents. Not sure that’s the case? Nothing else explains why the tiny town of Huntington generates millions in marijuana sales each year. Ontario would be the new Huntington – a place for those who can’t legally buy in Idaho to come over the border, grab their pot, and hope they can get home before the police catch them. By their very conduct, those Idaho customers are scofflaws. Is that the clientele on which to build the financial future of Ontario?

And look at who’s writing the big checks to push this repeal. The biggest backer is a Spokane man who is building a multimillion dollar business selling marijuana. He’s followed by two men from Idaho who run one of Huntington’s dispensaries. Make no mistake. These men aren’t here determined to see Ontario residents get good, clean marijuana. This is business. And they’re prying open Ontario’s door with their checks. The Spokane guy put up the money to bring in workers to round up signatures to get this repeal on the ballot. If repeal was genuinely favored in Ontario, why did paid workers have to be used to hustle signatures?

The businesses eager to slice up the marijuana market in Ontario are coming to make money, not serve as caretakers of people who like a good buzz now and then. Ontario voters should make clear their community isn’t for sale and send these carpetbaggers packing. – LZ