As of Thursday, April 17, 2014
Despite its legal staff saying the Gorge Commission had authority to ban growing and selling marijuana on the Washington side of the national scenic area, the commission took a pass on the idea.
The legal argument, made at the commission’s April 8 meeting, was that the Gorge Commission, as a federally-enacted entity, was administering federal law, which trumped state law. And federal law says pot is illegal.
But Gorge Commissioner Keith Chamberlain said the pot issue was a state, not a federal issue, and one that was handily approved by voters.
The new voter-approved law in Washington authorizes those 21 and older to produce, process and sell marijuana.
“I don’t understand why we spent time doing this. I can’t support it,” Chamberlain said of the legal brief prepared by the commission’s legal staff. “I don’t think this is a battle we should get into at this time.”
All three Washington counties in the scenic area have taken different tacks for regulating the growing and selling of pot. Clark County approached the commission for guidance on how the law would apply within the scenic area.
Though the commission decided not to wade into the issue, several predicted it would be coming back to them at some point.
Gorge Commission Chair Jim Middaugh said, “I don’t want to defer to the state on protection of SNCR [scenic, natural, cultural and recreational resources],” which is one of the two purposes of the scenic area act, but he said he wanted to allow the “experiment” to proceed, while ensuring resources are protected.
Lynn Burditt, national scenic area manager for the U.S. Forest Service, said illegal pot grows have been discovered in the scenic area and the destruction they cause “is not a pretty sight.”
Middaugh said he does fear some unwelcome legal precedent could occur down the road. “I suspect we may need to revisit this and we may choose a different approach.”
Gorge Commissioner Dan Ericksen said he appreciated the legal brief, but said federal authorities had essentially said they were leaving it to local authorities to decide. He said the Gorge Commission was, in essence, a local authority, but the growing of pot did not necessarily involve the resource protection purposes of the act.
He felt it would be better politically to defer to the counties.
Gorge Commissioner Gorham Blaine said he felt there were some battles the commission should fight, such as coal transports through the gorge, but growing and selling pot was not one of them.
Michael Lang, conservation director for the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, agreed with Blaine. Lang said their own legal staff read the commission’s legal brief supporting a ban, and “found the rationale a bit strained.”
Lang said the Friends would like to see the commission spending its time on more pressing matters, such as the proposal to increase coal and oil train transports through the gorge.