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In Oregon, Marijuana Dispensary Leads To Small Town Political Showdown

Chris Lehman
Brie Malarkey owns Breeze Botanicals in Gold Hill, Oregon.

The town of Gold Hill, Oregon is in turmoil. Two-thirds of its city council is the subject of a recall election come Monday.

What has some of the 1,200 residents of Gold Hill so riled up? The targeted city leaders had voted to approve a medical marijuana dispensary.

From the outside, Breeze Botanicals doesn't look like a place that sells pot. There are a couple of crates of garden veggies out front. Walk inside, and you're greeted by soothing acoustic music. But there's one thing that hints of something amiss: a big sign that says, “vote no on the recall."

Owner Brie Malarkey says she really didn't want to get into politics when she opened her dispensary a few months ago.

“I'd much rather have my hands in the dirt and be an herbalist, and working with patients and find the right herbs for them versus politicking. But if we don't do that, we'll have our rights taken away from us,” Malarkey said.

The recall election wouldn't specifically force Malarkey to close her doors. Instead, it's aimed at the four city council members who voted to approve the zoning changes necessary for Breeze Botanicals to open.

Doug Reischman is one of the council members whose volunteer position is at stake. He defends the vote that landed him in hot water.

"What the council did was to stand up for the entrepreneurs. And as long as they're running a legal business, there's no reason to stop it,” Reischman said.

Clearly that view isn't held by everyone in Gold Hill. The recall petition accuses Reischman and three of his colleagues of disregarding the community's wishes. Christine Alford, who lives across the street from the dispensary, says she'll vote to remove the council members from office.

"It reminds me of that old saying: ‘Cotton is king down in the south.’ Well, are those the new game rules, that marijuana is king and that it preempts everybody else's rights?" Alford said.

Alford and other opponents say the dispensary is too close to a nearby church, city park and library. Under state law, that’s permissible. Gold Hill voters have until Monday to turn in their recall ballots.

Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.