Race is on to get first marijuana licenses in Ontario

Steven Meland (left) signs his name in line for a marijuana license at the city Community Development Center in Ontario. 

ONTARIO – Jeremy Archie spent the wee hours of Friday morning outside the Community Development office, waiting to turn in his application for the few coveted marijuana dispensary permits in Ontario.

“I did not realize people were going to be lining up this early,” said Archie, a resident of Portland. “I just came back into town after Election Day to get my pieces in order and see if anybody was out here. I definitely wasn’t planning on being out here for this long. But I’m not going anyway until I get my application turned in.’’

On Friday at 6:30 a.m., Dan Cummings, the city community development director, opened the doors of his office to bring order to processing applications. He said the Ontario City Council approved a last-minute resolution the day before to address the line of people camping outside his office.

Some brave souls who had lined up before Archie were braving 30-degree temperatures to be first in line. The city subsequently issued numbers to represent places in line.

“It’s worth it,” said Justin Long of Sumpter. Long owns the Golden Nugget marijuana dispensary in Sumpter. 

Long, who wants to move his business to Ontario, was seventh in line. 

“Just because you are applying for a license doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. That’s why people are lining up so early,” said Long.

The payoff for a few days of cold: a possible conditional-use permit to sell recreational marijuana to Malheur County and Treasure Valley’s 700,000-plus residents, a business potentially worth millions of dollars.

The rush for permits unfolded after Ontario voters last week decided to repeal the city’s ban on commercial sale of recreational marijuana.

Cummings estimates the recently approved zoning laws would allow 10 to 15 marijuana businesses in Ontario. However, marijuana merchants are skeptical. 

“Have you looked at the map?” said Archie, pointing at a map of Ontario showing the different zones and permitted marijuana spots. “Remember, wherever the first business is set up, there has to be a thousand foot buffer around that.”

He has an option on a downtown building as the site for a marijuana store if he gets the necessary permits.

He pointed to one lot on the zoning map in east Ontario that sits in the middle of an area shaded orange, designating a commercial zone.

“Let’s say the second person in line already has this property and gets a license,” Archie said, his finger still placed on the map. “Then this person will block out all of this area. That means no one else on this side of town can come here.” 

If Archie is right, then he and the next applicants are out of luck.

Ontario’s new regulated recreational marijuana business program is under construction but the city began a preliminary process for those lined up to operate a commercial cannabis facility. 

The first step for future business operators is to apply for a conditional use permit to the city, where processing can begin the day after New Year’s.

“Once they get that approval, then they can ask the state for a license through the OLCC,’’ said Cummings. “When somebody applies at the state level, they need to show proof they’ve been given authorization at that site. Licenses are site-specific.’’

Cummings said potential business operators also have to show a contract with the property owner. The conditional-use permit is valid for one year.

He said that an existing marijuana business could be moved to Ontario, but that likely would require OLCC permission.

With a conditional use permit and OLCC approval in hand, potential marijuana operators need one more form – an Ontario business license.

Cummings said city officials wanted to wait until the election was over before they developed policy for business licenses. And the reason for issuing local business licenses on top of state authorization, he said, is to ensure that cannabis facilities follow city laws.

“That means making sure they are following the buffers, not staying open after hours, and that they don’t cheat their parking,” he said.

The licensing program “gives the city the ability to pull the license of a noncompliant business owner,” said Cummings. “It’s a way to give the city more control over regulation and enforcement.”

The campaign for repeal was expensive by local standards.

Campaign finance records show supporters outspent opponents by 10 to 1. The political action committee Americanna, as of four days before the election, reported spending $123,000. Of that, $99,250 came from Tate Kapple, a Spokane marijuana businessman, and another $24,370 came from SNJ Online, a company run by Steven Meland and Jay Breton. The two operate one of Huntington’s two marijuana outlets.

The opposition campaign reported spending $11,405 as of the Friday preceding the election.

Ontario is a classically conservative community where GOP voters dominate. Republican and Democratic voters, though, turned out in high numbers to cast a vote on the repeal of the ban on recreational sales of marijuana.

Gayle Trotter, Malheur County clerk, said preliminary totals showed that 60 percent of Ontario’s 5,656 registered voters cast ballots last week. Trotter’s totals showed that the highest turnout was among Ontario’s Republicans, who cast 1,415 ballots or an 83 percent turnout. Ontario’s Democrats cast 799 votes for a 73 percent turnout. Non-affiliated voters cast 992 votes, representing 39 percent of voters who are not registered with a political party.

Ron Verini, Ontario mayor, said he doesn’t believe there is an obvious answer regarding why voters chose to lift the ban on marijuana sales in town.

“Your guess is as good as mine. Our community spoke loud and clear, just like the time they did not want the sales tax. They obviously want marijuana,” said Verini.

He said pro-marijuana supporters were organized well.

“Quite frankly, the community that was against pot did not have the organization or the will to get out there and the people who had the initiative on the pro side went out and fought with vigor,” said Verini.

John Kirby, who owns Kinney Brothers & Keele True Value in Ontario, spearheaded the effort against lifting the ban on retail marijuana sales as the director of the No Pot Ontario, a political action committee. 

He said he was surprised voters agreed to lift the ban.

“When I finally went to bed (Tuesday night) we were behind 26 votes. And then I got up the next morning and saw we got slaughtered. It was emotional,” said Kirby.

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

Pat Caldwell: 541-437-3377 or [email protected].