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Medical Cannabis and Good Neighbors by Dr. Rick Bayer

Oregon voters passed the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act (OMMA) in 1998 and the Department of Human Services (DHS) established the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) in 1999. After nearly a decade, the number of registered patients has increased to the size of a small Oregon town. Like any small town, most citizens are good neighbors; but a few are not.

Recently, in rural Southern Oregon, a neighbor legally growing medical marijuana became such an annoyance that a neighborhood association contacted a state legislator for help. After members of the Outreach Subcommittee of the DHS Advisory Committee on Medical Marijuana (ACMM) met with the association, it became clear that the issues with the bad neighbor, although significant, were not unique to growing cannabis.

The association now realizes there are already local laws to solve bad neighbor problems. Empowered with knowledge, the complainants appropriately contacted the Jackson County Commissioners in charge of Planning & Development. If enforcement of current laws does not resolve the problem, the Commissioners may enact stricter zoning laws.

In another bad neighbor scenario, a rural legal cannabis grower had issues with an Oregon neighbor who raised Appaloosa horses. That bad neighbor had bright vapor lights burning all night; four Rottweilers that roamed the neighborhood; foul-smelling paddocks; loud and late parties involving large quantities of alcohol; and shoddy, falling-down fences.

The proper response she sought was not new state legislation. Instead, she got the county to enforce existing zoning and animal control regulations the bad neighbor was routinely breaking.

The lesson is that bad neighbors are a blight on any community but are not unique to cannabis growers or horse breeders. And, bad neighbors should be managed without discrimination through enforcement of existing local laws. In other words, when evaluating complaints about OMMP growers, most issues are already regulated under existing local laws.

Specific bad neighbor issues might include:

  1. Bright Lights. Bright outdoor security lighting is not unique to cannabis growing and should be addressed by existing local zoning laws.
  2. Dogs. Dogs can create complaints regardless of the presence or absence of cannabis. Dogs are required to be licensed and contained, and are subject to existing animal control laws.
  3. Odors. Odor from an indoor garden can be controlled with charcoal filters. An outdoor grow can produce the scent of flowering cannabis, particularly near harvest. Although some odors indicate health hazards like smoke or open sewage; most are subjective. For example, some persons gag at the smell of animal flesh roasting on a barbeque. In this example, despite the fact that carcinogenic second-hand smoke can sicken some peoples’ sensibilities, roasting animal flesh on a barbeque grill continues to remain legal. Disliking the scent of flowering cannabis seems to fall within a similar subjective category.
  4. Noise and Traffic. Most communities have existing noise control ordinances, designed to combat continually barking dogs; loud and late parties; continuous playing of loud music; revving engines, and other loud noises. Issues involving legal operations in growing cannabis are irrelevant in this regard.
  5. Ugly Fencing. Fencing styles and materials involve both aesthetics and safety. This issue is best addressed by communities’ existing zoning and land use laws, not by revisions to the OMMA.

In summary, complaints about cannabis growers are more frequently related to a bad neighbor rather than cannabis growing per se. And the complainants with intolerable situations due to bad neighbors currently have legal recourse under existing local laws. Put another way, complainants should contact local authorities such as city or county officials regarding zoning, animal control, noise ordinances, and land use laws. All citizens must follow these laws without discrimination.

In addition, the ACMM has an Outreach Committee, chaired by Christine McGarvin, a social worker and trained mediator. She will meet with neighborhood associations and local government to seek resolution when citizens and governments need advice about the OMMA. The ACMM webpage is: http://oregon.gov/DHS/ph/ommp/acmm.shtml
In the mean time, as more patients learn about the relative safety of medical cannabis compared to other drug treatment options, OMMP enrollment will continue to rise. The federal government should reschedule marijuana so patients can access it by prescription. Because of federal intransigence in its war against marijuana, we have a patchwork of different medical marijuana laws throughout the country with New Jersey recently becoming the 14th state to have an active medical marijuana law. No wonder some are confused about what is now legal or tolerated.

Regardless of efforts to liberate medical cannabis, we should all be good neighbors. Not only do smart cannabis growers want to be good neighbors to blend in with their community; but their neighbors probably support the OMMA too—particularly if they are not antagonized. Being good neighbors should transcend politics because good neighbors create good communities.

Rick Bayer, MD is board-certified in internal medicine, a fellow in the American College of Physicians, and practiced in Oregon for many years. Co-author of Is Marijuana the Right Medicine For You? A Factual Guide to Medical Uses of Marijuana, he was the filing chief petitioner for the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act in 1998.

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