For the past several months we have been following Josephine County’s efforts to regulate away its cannabis industry, specifically in rural residential zones. This saga has taken many twists and turns (see here, here, here, and here), but this week brought perhaps the biggest twist yet: Josephine County has sued the State of Oregon in a suit that could effectively invalidate its cannabis program.
The legal skirmishes began back in December, when Josephine County passed an ordinance to severely curtail cannabis production on over 16,000 rural residential properties. A group of growers appealed the ordinance to Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA), raising a procedural argument (improper notice to affected properties) and two substantive arguments (the county cannot ban pre-existing lawful uses and the ordinance exceeds the county’s ability to impose reasonable time, place, and manner regulations on cannabis production). Last month, LUBA ruled against the county, solely on the procedural issue. Josephine County failed to provide proper notice of the public hearings where the ordinance was discussed. As a result, LUBA did not reach the substantive merits. As expected, Josephine County elected to appeal the procedural question.
Surprisingly, Josephine County also decided to take the drastic step of filing a lawsuit against the State of Oregon in federal court. We gave our initial take on this aggressive move in news coverage here and here. In short, Josephine County wants the federal court to:
- Declare that cannabis production cannot qualify as a pre-existing “lawful use” because of federal prohibition;
- Declare that counties can place any restrictions they want, including a full ban, on cannabis businesses because state legal regimes are pre-empted by federal law;
- Declare that Oregon’s medical and recreational regimes unlawfully restrict the county’s police powers in light of federal prohibition;
- Enjoin the State from bringing official misconduct charges against any local or county official that ignores their duties under state law.
This is a stunning overreach, as a victory could presumably give counties the ability to even ignore Oregon’s decriminalization statutes. As a county that allegedly wants to crack down on bad actors and the black market, and is apparently struggling to provide basic services, Josephine County should be welcoming law abiding, tax paying cannabis farms with open arms. Instead, I am reminded of my young daughter breaking her own toy when she doesn’t get her way.
This lawsuit raises core constitutional questions, involving states’ rights to promulgate cannabis programs despite the federal Controlled Substances Act, and over the objection of local jurisdictions. In the past, we have seen prohibitionist states attempt to invalidate neighboring states’ cannabis programs, to no avail. This may be the first time, however, that a county in an adult use state has filed such a lawsuit against its sovereign. We will be monitoring this case closely, as will the Oregon cannabis industry at large and other prohibitionist counties nationwide.