In Grants Pass, life with legal marijuana explored as Ontario votes

Diamond Cannabis sits on a prime corner of downtown in Grants Pass, which said OK to retail pot three years ago. (File/Grants Pass Daily Courier)

GRANTS PASS — Three years after recreational marijuana became legal in Grants Pass, community leaders of the former timber town say that residents are more accepting of its presence but the black market hasn’t gone away.

School officials also report that children’s access to marijuana has increased as they’ve encountered more instances of students bringing pot to campus.

Grant Pass’ experience could foreshadow life in Ontario if voters approve a repeal of the local ban. A measure doing so is before voters on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Unlike many western Oregon cities, Grants Pass is overwhelmingly conservative in its politics and traditionally elects Republicans at all levels of government, despite having endured a marijuana culture in the region since the 1960s. 

Josephine County is similar to Malheur County in some ways. Voters in the two counties voted in large majority for Republican candidates in the last five presidential elections. In the 2016 election, 62 percent of Josephine County voters chose Donald Trump for president compared to 69 percent in Malheur County.

Grants Pass, which sits on the Rogue River and is the county seat, had a booming logging industry following World War II. Sawmills and logging yards anchored the area. Now, the wigwam burners that were once the church steeples of timber country are almost all gone.

In the mid-1990s, environmental protections for the spotted owl and other species and an increased reliance on automation worsened employment in the logging and timber industries. 

A decade later, a housing bust further cut production.

“The social situation here is we have a lot of poverty,” said state Rep. Carl Wilson. “There are lots of transients in town who move with the seasons that are more like your adult vagrants.”

Wilson, who voted against the legalization of marijuana, was the vice chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Marijuana Regulation.

A marijuana culture

Large outdoor grow operations set up illegally for years in the national forest outside Grants Pass, and smaller towns had a tolerance not accepted in the county seat.

“There’s a marijuana culture that’s been here since the late 1960s,” said Wilson. “It’s been legal now for three years.”

Wilson said most residents of Grants Pass have always known about the presence of marijuana just outside the city limits.

“But it was all very secret and hidden,” he said. “Then suddenly it’s not hidden anymore.”

Wilson said he personally was shocked by the legalization of marijuana, which carried a social taboo for a long time.

“It came from the shadows,” Wilson said. “Even the medical program was greatly in the shadows.”

Wilson agreed Grants Pass is comparable in political ideology to Ontario’s residents.

“A comparison between the two cities is pretty good,” he said. “I think Republicans have a 14 percent advantage over Democrats here.” Wilson said.

In 2014, voters statewide approved Measure 91, legalizing marijuana and opening the door for dispensaries.

In southern Oregon, voters in two of the three counties opposed legalization. Josephine County was one – but narrowly. The vote was 17,313 no, 17,311 yes.

On the other side of the the state, voters in Malheur County also opposed legalization.

Because the margin was so slim, Josephine County had to allow recreational sales. In Grants Pass, the city council imposed a ban on sales. In November 2016, Grants Pass voters repealed that ban 8,400-8,108. 

As a result, recreational sales became legal in the city.

Wilson said that at first “a lot of people had a hard time seeing dispensaries and store fronts in the city and county as well.”

Grants Pass is now home to two dispensaries.

After legalization, Grants Pass citizens eventually accepted the presence of marijuana shops in town.

“The thing that has surprised a lot of people about marijuana being legal – it hasn’t drawn a lot of transients hanging around the pot stores,” Wilson said. “They look like regular folks who go through those doors. They’re not bums or vagrants going through those dispensary doors.”

Colene Martin, former president of Grants Pass Chamber of Commerce, agreed residents are accepting of marijuana.

“The first year was hard,” said Martin, who works as a real estate agent. “It was challenging because there were so many changes happening for property owners, for neighbors, and our lifestyle changed that first year.”

Three years after marijuana was introduced in the city, Martin said, “it’s civilizing.”

Martin said, during the first two years, there was a “huge rush” of real estate grabs that was a big deal at first.

“Property values were skyrocketing, but now prices are decreasing because we have so much marijuana now,” she said. “We have too much of it around. So growers can’t make any money. So the market has stabilized.”

She said that Grants Pass businesses started to become more accepting towards marijuana entrepreneurs coming to town.

“It wasn’t until the second year that people were starting to realize that it was a commodity and a respectable business,” Martin said. “The business fronts of these marijuana stores were nice. They’re like higher end dispensaries. And they were giving back to the community and they actually want to give back to the community.”

She said it was interesting to see a large number of people go from opposing marijuana to accepting it.

However, Martin said she and some residents resented the way local officials established rules for the new industry.

“I was really angry that our state and county commissioners and city leaders didn’t try to understand better,” said Martin. “They didn’t prepare for it well. They couldn’t put better regulations on neighborhoods or size of grows. But I think it might’ve had a better impact on our community.”

The impact also showed up in schools.

 “Looking back three years ago when recreational sales started in Grants Pass, the incidence of school expulsions was pretty flat that first year,” said Ryan Thompson, Grants Pass High School principal. “But the second year, we saw between 25 and 30 percent more marijuana-related discipline actions.”

He said there were 50 incidents of marijuana that either led to expulsion or provisional enrollment in the school year after marijuana sales became legal.

Schools adjust schedules

However, a change in the school schedule that added to classroom time during the day dramatically decreased the number of marijuana-related expulsions to almost two-thirds less.

In the 2017-18 school year, Thompson said the number of school expulsions shrank to 16.

Thompson said, however, students’ access to marijuana has increased. 

“Unlike alcohol, where it’d be harder for students to hide, marijuana products are very discreet,” said Thompson. “And just like anything that parents leave in the house, it’s very accessible.”

The principal said “dabbing” and “juuling” are the rage these days among the students. Thompson said juuling – a form of vaping – has been more common among students since it’s “difficult to detect.” He said that’s because the odor of pot or nicotine is masked with other scents and the smoke can dissipate quickly.

 “We’ve seen a lot of kids doing it in classrooms and bathrooms,” said Thompson. “Juuling is very hard to detect. They look like thin pens or thumb drives.”

To address the issue, Thompson said the school began training staff on how to detect marijuana use. He said he has also reached out to parents to warn them that the new smoking gadgets are becoming more common.

A push for prevention

Thompson said he is also expanding prevention efforts.

“We just know that expelling students does no good. So, we really try to just educate them if they get caught,” he said.

“We’ve been focused on prevention and looking at ways to get kids involved in healthy manners,” said Thompson. “We try to offer students other school activities to replace that time with trying to fulfill with drug use.”

In the Three Rivers School District, the expulsion rate hasn’t gone up since marijuana legalization but pot use among students became more common.

 “After the passing of Measure 91, the presence of marijuana in my schools has become much more pervasive,” said David Valenzuela, district superintendent. “It’s everywhere. Marijuana is extremely accessible. Everyone has it. We’re just trying to make our campuses as drug free as possible.”

Valenzuela said there’s been a big increase in parent use. With more parents buying and using pot, he said kids can easily get it at home. 

“Parents have it and leave it around like anything in the house,” Valenzuela said.

He said it’s harder to detect at school.

“We’ve had all types of drugs brought to school, but it’s been harder to find marijuana,” said Valenzuela. “Marijuana is much more portable, it’s easier to get and easily available.”

To address the problem, Valenzuela said he and his staff are trying to change the cultural perception among their student.

“I just know that there used to be a bad label attached to marijuana socially, so the average kid would be averse to using it,” said Valenzuela. “But now kids are like ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just marijuana!’ I hear that all the time from our students in Josephine County.”

Crimes linked to grows

Crime in Grants Pass hasn’t increased since marijuana legalization, according to Police Chief Bill Landis.

“The laws that were put in place in the city probably diminished some of the impacts of legalization,” he said.

His agency is seeing an increase in impaired drivers, he said. 

He said the police have seen an increase in crimes related to grows in the rural areas of Josephine County and outside Grants Pass. 

“We’ve had more shootings, fatalities, robberies related to the marijuana grows,” said Landis. “One of things that has been slow was the enforcement of regulations put in place.”

He said problem with the black market for marijuana in Oregon has worsened.

“When marijuana sales passed, we didn’t have enough enforcement to go around to keep things in check with growers,” he said.

He noted that the city banned outdoor marijuana grows, including those for personal use.

Laura Glover, the Grants Pass planning director, said the city also put limits on marijuana businesses. The city bans smoking marijuana within 1,000 feet of areas such as schools, parks and day care centers. 

“We also didn’t allow dispensaries to be within 1,000 feet of another,” she said. 

Landis said that the city’s restrictions and municipal code limit the areas where and how marijuana stores can operate “so we don’t have an onslaught of marijuana stores.”

Mayor Darin Fowler said the region’s culture of marijuana has limited commercial success.

“The dispensaries don’t do very well,” he said. “It’s been around for so long, so those that want it already have a dealer. They don’t need to go to a dispensary.”

He said legalization hasn’t had much impact on his city.

“I don’t see much negative effect, except the message we’re now saying to our kids. It’s just like with alcohol, we’re saying that it’s now OK, like we’re saying marijuana is OK to our children.” 

Reporter Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.