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Dispensary applicant: ‘We really just want to help people’

For Michael Rachford, there are many reasons why venturing into the medical marijuana business seems like a good idea.

A self-described “longtime resident of the Gorge for over 25 years,” Rachford is one of two people who have submitted an application to the state to operate a medical marijuana dispensary in Hood River County, according to the latest statistics. Dispensaries officially became legal last week in the state of Oregon, and the Oregon Health Authority, the agency overseeing the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, has already received hundreds of dispensary applications.

Rachford says running a dispensary fits well with his skillset. His father was a biochemist and Rachford grew up enjoying science. He eventually went on to study phyto-chemistry in college. He’s also worked in the natural medicine and organic food products industries for years, employed by places like Trout Lake Farm in Trout Lake and Columbia Phyto Techonology — a food powder company now called PowderPure — in The Dalles.

He also believes the timing is right.

“I see it as an up-and-coming industry,” he said of medical marijuana. “I see parallels to the organic industry from 15 years ago. People are becoming more and more aware about it and more friendly to it.”

But all those reasons pale in comparison to what he says is his chief motivation for wanting to run a dispensary: helping the sick.

Rachford is looking to operate the dispensary — which would be located in the city of Hood River and called The Gorge Green Cross — with his business partner, Michelle Rieschert, who he calls his “inspiration” for wanting to get into the business.

“Her mom has leukemia and she has several family members who have cancer and have benefitted from medical marijuana,” he explained. He added that he has several friends who also have had cancer and found medical marijuana to help ease the side effects of chemotherapy.

Rachford says he’s a firm believer in the medical benefits of marijuana, which is used to treat everything from chronic pain, to seizures, to multiple sclerosis, or to stimulate the appetites of HIV/AIDS and cancer patients. According to Rachford, the analgesic properties of the plant can sometimes make marijuana a better, safer alternative to pharmacological opiates traditionally prescribed for palliative measures.

While marijuana is certainly used for recreational purposes, Rachford says that’s not what dispensaries are about. He and Rieschert considered opening a business on the Washington side of the Columbia, where voters legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012, but opted for the Oregon side of the river, in part, because they want their product to specifically go to those with medical needs.

“We really just want to help people on the medical side,” Rachford explained. “We didn’t want to just get people high.”

Not everyone shares Rachford’s enthusiasm for medical marijuana, though. Local law enforcement has expressed concerns over increased access to marijuana, particularly by those who don’t have medical marijuana cards, as well as a potential rise in high drivers on the roads. Oregon lawmakers are also allowing local governments to temporarily ban dispensaries and make additional rules outside of the provisions of the medical marijuana dispensary bill as to how the establishments can operate. The Hood River County Board of Commissioners will be debating whether or not it wants to establish a yearlong moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries during its regular meeting scheduled for Monday.

Rachford has heard the concerns about medical marijuana many times before, but says Oregon’s dispensary system is tightly controlled. For one, no consumption is allowed on the premises of any dispensary, which Rachford says makes it far more likely for someone to leave a bar intoxicated than a dispensary.

The state also requires numerous security measures to protect the dispensaries from theft, including motion sensors, panic buttons at the counter, and high-definition security cameras Rachford says must have good enough resolution for him to “see a face, print it out in color, and give it to the police” in case of a break-in. Though the measures are expensive, Rachford says his establishment, which is still pending approval of the state, would go above and beyond and require background checks for all employees and have each employee to carry a panic button on their person.

Moreover, Rachford says the state can pull video footage of the inside of the dispensary to ensure employees are compliant. Also, any marijuana that is grown by a cardholder must be sent off to be tested for yeast, mold, pesticides, and parasites for quality control purposes.

Rachford hopes the county commission does not place a moratorium on dispensaries and plans on speaking to the commission about the benefits a dispensary might bring to the county. He cites statistics from the OHA that show fees from medical marijuana cardholders and dispensaries will generate millions of dollars annually for the state that go toward emergency medical services, family planning, school-based health centers on other programs. He notes that dispensaries may actually help curb the black market by providing cardholders a place to sell their excess marijuana they’ve grown.

“I don’t think we’re going to increase the amount of marijuana in town,” Rachford said. “We’re trying to displace the amount of marijuana that’s coming from the black market.

“We’re not trying to promote growing,” he added. “There’s plenty enough out there as it is.”

Rachford is hoping to rally a portion of the 300 medical marijuana cardholders that live in Hood River County to attend the meeting and show their support for the dispensary program.

“We want to be proactive and are bringing supporting documents and studies that address the most common issues and concerns of city representatives, communities, neighbors, businesses, and law enforcement,” he said. “We feel with some real world data, instead of speculation, we can help our commissioners make a decision against any ban or moratorium.”

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