Legal recreational marijuana sales begin Thursday in Oregon – OregonLive.com
Starting Thursday, marijuana becomes as accessible as a six-pack of beer for hundreds of thousands of Oregonians.
The first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1973 and home to one of the country’s oldest medical marijuana programs, Oregon this week joins Colorado and Washington as the only places in the country where anyone 21 and older can buy marijuana in a state-regulated marketplace.
For longtime pot smokers, retail access to a drug they’ve kept quiet about represents the end of an era. Not only can Oregonians possess pot without worrying about getting a ticket or worse, starting this week they can walk into a shop with cash and walk out with enough dried flowers to roll about a dozen joints.
“You don’t have to whisper about it at a restaurant or a bar,” said Jeff Drake, a 64-year-old Beaverton retiree and longtime recreational consumer who plans to shop at several Portland-area dispensaries Thursday. “You can talk about it openly. People may look at you askance, but get over it. It’s legal.”
For critics of legal pot, the start of marijuana sales only bolsters the drug’s mainstream appeal and raises a host of public health concerns, from teen use to drugged driving. Many worry Oregon hasn’t done enough to educate people about the risks associated with marijuana use, particularly among youth.
“Our concern about when stores roll out is really kids and the availability and the accessibility and normalization and the advertising and marketing,” said Mandi Puckett, who directed the No on 91 campaign and now serves as executive director of Clear Alliance, a Redmond-based nonprofit focused on statewide substance abuse prevention.
Said Puckett: “When you have that messaging going out and you don’t show the risks, that is the message kids get.”
Oregon voters last year said yes to legalizing marijuana and creating a regulated market to serve recreational consumers. Measure 91 passed with 56 percent of the statewide vote.
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A whopping 71 percent of voters in Multnomah County, where marijuana use among young people tops state and national averages, favored the measure.
But to start, recreational marijuana sales won’t be the tightly regulated and taxed industry envisioned by Measure 91.
With marijuana possession legal starting last July, Oregon lawmakers decided to speed up the timetable for recreational sales. They gave the go-ahead for a temporary sales program that allows people to make limited purchases from already established dispensaries.
Those businesses, which are overseen by the Oregon Health Authority, may sell up to a quarter-ounce of dried flowers, roughly enough for seven to 12 joints, as well as four starter plants and an unlimited number of seeds to people 21 and older.
For now, marijuana-infused edibles, potent concentrates and a dizzying range of consumer goods, from skin patches to personal lubricants, remain off limits to recreational shoppers. Those products, available only to Oregon medical marijuana patients and caregivers, won’t be sold on the recreational market until the program shifts to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission late next year.
Keeping those products out of the recreational market and keeping marijuana from people under 21 are the health authority’s twin priorities as legal sales get underway, said Steve Wagner, who this week steps down from his post at the health authority.
Wagner promised the state would be “pretty aggressive” about cracking down on establishments selling to people under 21 or those selling edibles and concentrates.
The agency has two dispensary inspectors on staff and is in the process of hiring another 11, said Wagner. He said those compliance officials should be in the field by Nov. 1. Annual salaries for the positions range from $36,000 to $76,500.
Wagner said the staff already spotted a dispensary, Silver Stem in Northeast Portland, advertising marijuana-infused edibles to recreational customers.
“We paid them a visit and told them how inappropriate and outside of the rules that was and required that they do additional posting to make it super clear that that is not a legal option,” said Wagner.
Establishments that break the rules, he said, risk losing their ability to operate.
State officials aren’t the only ones closely watching the rollout of recreational sales.
Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, co-chair of the Oregon Legislature’s committee on marijuana implementation, said the program’s success or failure will send a signal to Oregon communities resistant to legal marijuana. Numerous cities and counties are blocking recreational sales, either through opt-out provisions approved by the Legislature or by refusing to give business licenses to medical marijuana dispensaries.
“There is a lot of nervousness and fear of the unknown,” said Burdick. “Once we have a little bit more information to go on, we will either know what problems we have to address or be able to reassure people that this is not something that is going to ruin your community.
“I have seen these shops in Colorado,” she said, “and they just are not that big a deal.”
Meanwhile, the marijuana industry is ramping up to serve what they hope will be big crowds Thursday.
Dispensary owners plan to extend business hours and add counter space. They’ve hired additional “budtenders,” employees who work behind the counter and fill orders for customers.
And workers are rolling stockpiles of joints so customers can grab and go.
While Colorado opened recreational sales with several dozen stores statewide and Washington had a handful of shops on opening day, Oregon is on track to have more than 200. Registered medical marijuana facilities are eligible to sell to the recreational market, provided they notify the state first.
As of Tuesday morning, 203 dispensaries said they plan to sell recreational cannabis, according to the health authority.
“We are hoping a lot of our patients will bring in their friends and family,” said Aligra Rainy, an owner of Collective Awakenings, a shop on Northeast Sandy Boulevard and one of the first medical marijuana shops in the city. “We do expect to have a lot of people 21 and older coming over to check it out.”
Shop owners have set aside as much marijuana as they can get.
“I feel like I can sell 10 times as much as I have,” said Shane McKee, a longtime marijuana grower who owns a chain of Portland-area dispensaries called Shango.
“We are constantly selling out.” McKee, who also sells his product to other dispensaries, said he fields multiple calls a day from shop owners looking for “large orders.”
“We have some put away,” said McKee, “but not nearly what we will need.”
Across the Columbia River in Washington, Vancouver’s marijuana shops also are stocking up.
The city’s state-regulated stores, which have seen a steady stream of customers from Oregon since opening last year, are focused on offering products the general public can’t yet buy in Oregon: concentrates, marijuana-infused edibles and topical items, like breath strips, tinctures and skin patches.
And they’re keeping an eye on prices.
For now, pot shoppers in Oregon get a tax holiday. A 25 percent temporary sales tax doesn’t kick in until Jan. 4, 2016. That tax will be replaced late next year with a 17 percent state tax, estimated to generate more than $30 million a year.
Local governments may add up to another 3 percent tax, provided their voters approve.
The temporary tax reprieve sets Oregon apart from Washington and Colorado, where recreational consumers pay state and local taxes on their purchases.
When the market opens Thursday, Oregonians can expect to pay between $10 and $15 a gram, enough for a generously sized joint.
Despite the tax difference, Ramsey Hamide, an owner of Main Street Marijuana in Vancouver, said he’s determined to stay competitive with Oregon’s recreational market.
His advice to his Oregon customers: “Try it all and we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”
As for Drake, a loyal customer at New Vansterdam in Vancouver, he’s already plotting Thursday’s buying spree around Portland.
“What I am hearing from people here is that Oregon pot is supposed to be the best in the country,” he said. “I am very curious to find out whether that’s true.”
— Noelle Crombie