By Shelby Sebens
PORTLAND, Ore., April 9 (Reuters) - Over 20 Oregon cities and counties are moving to temporarily ban medical marijuana dispensaries ahead of a May deadline, reflecting a divide between liberal Portland and more conservative rural areas wary about allowing medical weed.
The local moves to opt out of allowing sales of the drug as medicine come even as activists collect signatures to get a measure on the November ballot that, if approved, would allow recreational use of the drug.
Oregon decriminalized marijuana possession in the 1970s and in 1998 became one of the first U.S. states to sanction medical marijuana, although its 150 to 200 dispensaries long operated in a legal gray zone until state lawmakers last year passed a law to regulate them.
Officials have since approved 32 Oregon dispensaries, said Oregon Health Authority spokeswoman Karynn Fish. But under pressure from cities and counties lobbying for more local control over pot, Oregon lawmakers agreed last month to allow local governments to ban pot shops for a year.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but Washington state and Colorado voters in 2012 became the first to approve recreational use of the drug, and Alaska voters will decide on legalization there in August. Some 20 states and the District of Columbia permit medical pot.
As of this week, 23 cities and counties had opted to place temporary moratoriums on pot clinics to last until May 1, 2015, Fish said. They include Medford, a city in rural southern Oregon, and the Portland suburb of Oregon City.
Portland, Oregon's largest city, already has a number of medical marijuana clinics and has not moved to ban them.
Local officials, in calling for moratoriums, have cited the need to see how state regulations are applied before allowing the dispensaries to set up shop in their area.
"The idea is knowing that's probably the case that's going to happen. Let's see if we can get the best results possible," said Don Skundrick, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, which earlier this month passed a moratorium.
State health officials are going through about 50 medical marijuana dispensary applications a week and have received 310 since the law to regulate them went into effect last month, Fish said. Of those, 144 are in Portland, she said. (Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Richard Chang)