A photo taken on Saturday, March 21, at Weedology in Ontario was received by Ontario City Manager Adam Brown, on Monday, March 23. Brown said such photos sent to the city were part of what compelled officials to consider shuttering dispensaries as a means of curbing the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo courtesy city of Ontario)

ONTARIO – After contemplating a forced closure of local marijuana dispensaries, the Ontario City Council voted on Tuesday, March 24, to allow dispensaries to remain open if they adhere to directives aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus.

The council created the authority to suspend any dispensary’s operations if it violates directives laid out by Gov. Kate Brown that prohibit large gatherings and requires businesses to enforce social distancing – keeping people six feet apart.

The governor ordered the measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 before the number of infected Oregonians overwhelms medical resources.

Dispensaries for now can remain open, and can choose to roll out curbside pickup options for customers, according to the city motion passed Tuesday.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission recently approved a short-term measure to allow marijuana dispensaries to perform transactions and deliver product from a dispensary to a person who is outside of the store and within 150 feet of the retailer's licensed premises.

City officials and the public voiced concern that dispensaries, which often cater to customers from Idaho, were not adhering to social distancing requirements implemented to slow the virus, citing long lines, and packed interiors.

Idaho on Wednesday has since issued a statewide stay at home order to curb the spread of the virus in a state that is currently reporting 73 cases of COVID-19. 

Ontario City Manager, Adam Brown said concerns that dispensaries weren't adhering to social distancing was apparent after the city received phone calls and texted photos that were "hard to refute." 

The city’s original plan was to close the dispensaries entirely. However, the city’s legal counsel advised against such a move, citing in report to the councilors that “there may be legal implications for closing dispensaries without the appropriate authority.”

“Local ordinance does not give the city authority,” the report added.

One local dispensary, Hotbox Farms, had a Portland-based attorney wrote city officials on Saturday, March 21, threatening legal action if it moved unilaterally to close local dispensaries.

[ KEEP YOUR LOCAL NEWS STRONG - SUBSCRIBE ]

Douglas Morris, an attorney with Miller, Nash, Graham and Dunn who represents Hotbox Farms, was sent to Ontario City Manager, Adam Brown, on Saturday, March 21.

He said cannabis businesses to be considered essential to the community.

“The Hotbox Farms businesses serve patients who rely on Hotbox Farms to supply safe and tested products. Many Oregon patients suffering epilepsy, chronic pain, anxiety, and other conditions are not registered with the Oregon Health Authority, and they rely on OLCC-licensed businesses like Hotbox Farms,” Morris wrote.

He said the firm would sue if the city ordered the business to close and would seek “recovery of economic and non-economic damages suffered by Hotbox Farms as a result of illegal city action.”

On Tuesday, the city compromised by allowing dispensaries to remain open, but risk having their license suspended if they violate state directives. 

If a dispensary has its license suspended by the city, it would be unable to continue operating because OLCC regulations require compliance with local laws.

Steven Meland, co-owner of Hotbox Farms dispensary in Ontario, said that his team is currently operating under all of the guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is contemplating rolling out curbside service.

However, Meland said that curbside service would require bringing on more employees and also could create an added risk of spreading the virus.

The dispensary is considering a hybrid system where some customers can go into the store and others could be served outside, Meland said.

Tyrell Erlebach of Weedology made it clear that the dispensary is taking the coronavirus outbreak very seriously. Erlebach said the dispensary vows to do its part to set a good example.

“Our big thing here is we want to be good neighbors, Erlebach said. “We are concerned for the community. We are concerned for employees. We are not going to put these people in harm’s way, and we will do everything we can to help mitigate that.”

“If it comes to a point where we have to shut down, we’ll shut down,” he said.

Erlebach said he feels that if dispensaries were to shut down, it would only shift marijuana back to the black market, and also deprive individuals who use marijuana for medicinal purposes from accessing the medicine that they need in a time of increased anxiety.

“I get why we are under the microscope,” Erlebach said. “We are easy and we are the new guys, but if you go to Walmart or the Dollar Tree or Rite Aid or the truck stops and convenient stores or Chevron… they don’t have to go to the city council and fight to stay open and from having their businesses threatened with being closed down,” Erlebach said.

Erlebach said that Weedology has recently created a COVID-19 enforcer position as part of its program to control the spread of the virus at their property.  

The enforcer will don an orange vest and will perform the following tasks to ensure social distancing standards are met, require employees clean their stations at least once an hour, and people who are ill are kept out.

Erlebach, who spoke at Tuesday’s council meeting, said that as a business, Weedology is able to adapt quickly.

“I wanted the council to at least give us a chance to show that we can accommodate the CDC guidelines and the OLCC guidelines,” he said.

News tip? Contact reporter Joe Siess: news@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

For the latest news, follow the Enterprise on Facebook and Twitter.

SUBSCRIBE TO HELP PRODUCE VITAL REPORTING -- For $5 a month, you get breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news produced by a professional and highly trained staff. Help us grow and get better with your subscription. Sign up HERE.