Think Out Loud is traveling to cities and towns across the state to hear about the policy issues that matter to Oregonians. How do the decisions of lawmakers in Salem affect our lives? See our full coverage here.
On July 1, Oregonians will be able to grow four marijuana plants at home, possess 1 ounce of pot on their person and 8 ounces at their residence, and give marijuana to whomever they like.
Sometime in the near future — maybe later this year — they will be able to buy it in state licensed stores. Lawmakers in Salem have been trying for months to pass legislation that would clarify just what a recreational pot system will look like, but so far, no major legislation has passed.
Meanwhile, stakeholders in Southern Oregon’s pot economy are waiting to see how any new laws would affect their livelihoods.
John Jacob has been cultivating marijuana on his farm near Rogue River for 15 years. He started growing a few years after medical marijuana was legalized in Oregon. “I didn’t really get on that bandwagon until I saw my friends succeeding at it without getting in trouble.”
Now, so many people are growing and making a living from pot that “it’s the only thing keeping Southern Oregon alive … during the building downturn, during the logging downturn, a lot of people turned to herb as a way to survive.”
But he still plays it safe. “We’re very careful with our plant numbers, and the amount we have harvested at any one time, just to stay to the letter of the law the best we can.”
Jacob is interested in the recreational market, but he’s worried that there’s going to be a lot of people looking to cash in on it. “There’s a gold rush mentality right now,” he says.
That could complicate things for legal growers.
“We already grow more herb than the state of Oregon can smoke.”
He wants the state to encourage tourism, to make sure there’s as many buyers as possible for his product. And he wants to make sure they put energy into eliminating the illegal operations crowding the market. “If we could stamp that out, let legal growers compete … it would be very helpful.”
Brie Malarkey owns Breeze Botanicals in Gold Hill and Ashland. “I think that the pendulum is swinging to extreme over-regulation,” she says of the legislature’s efforts to write laws about recreational and medicinal pot.
She’s worried that taxes could drive prices too high.
“I’m really hoping that policymakers remember a lot of these people are low-income, a lot of them are on supplemental social security, many of them are our nation’s veterans, and they need … low-cost access.”
Plus, she thinks high taxes could keep the black market alive: “You don’t want to have taxes so high that it encourages people not to participate.”
Malarkey would also like to see some standardization in the labs that are used to test cannabis.
“We’ve done experiments here where we’ve sent a candy bar to a few different labs, and they’ve ranged 25 mg of THC to 750 mg for exact same candy bar.”
Malarkey isn’t the only one hoping for a change in the way labs are regulated. So are some lab owners. Rowshan Reordan runs Green Leaf Lab. She also wants Salem to be more proactive in lab quality control.
“Right now, as a testing laboratory, we are not regulated. We have no oversight … it’s very frustrating right now.”
Reordan got started testing pot after a friend consumed some harmful cannabis. “It was really disturbing that someone said that this medicine was safe and healthy for him and it ended up not being that,” she says.
She opened the lab “so that we could have some science behind people’s claims and also ensure that there’s safety for patients.”
Currently, the state demands that pot sold at dispensaries has to be tested for potency as well as harmful molds and pesticides. But when the labs are “completely unregulated,” as Reordan says, testing doesn’t guarantee that patients are safer.
She also says the state is not requiring the right tests. She says the mold test should be targeted on harmful molds, rather than a general mold count. “Sometimes when we test cannabis now, we’ll find black mold, which is known to be harmful for people when they consume it. And if it’s under 10,000 colony forming units per gram, we have to pass it, because of the current rules.”
She also says the pesticide testing is very broad, and the state should “really delineate which specific pesticides we should test for.”
There are also issues with the process that some producers use to manufacture marijuana concentrates and extracts. “[Manufacturers] use butane, propane, hexane sometimes, to extract the cannabinoids from the flower, and what will happen is if they don’t purge it or clean it properly, those residual solvents will be left over in the product. And so when someone consumes it, it will end up potentially harming them.”
Carol Ann Krueger is a medical marijuana cardholder because of the rheumatoid arthritis she’s had since 1969. She’s fine with legalizing recreational pot. But, she says, “I’m concerned about the price and keeping the cost as low as possible as a patient needing to consume medicine.”
She says marijuana helps reduce the inflammation she experiences as part of the arthritis. “My knees would swell up to about like grapefruit, my knuckles get very swollen, my wrists.” She says it caused “a lot of pain, a lot of discomfort.”
Nothing has worked as effectively as pot for her. “I have tried every pharmaceutical drug and been to every doctor and I’ve checked out Chinese medicine,” she says, “I’ve done coffee enemas upside down on a back swing … for real.”
“I understood it wouldn’t impinge on the medical program,” she says. “And that’s my hope … that I still will be able to grow my medicine, process my medicine, and consume my medicine. Or go to a dispensary to acquire my medicine.”
THE CITY BAN
Medford banned medical marijuana dispensaries last year, but there’s been turnover on the city council since then, and the new city leaders might prove friendlier to pot businesses.
Kevin McConnell is a deputy city attorney for Medford. He personally supports legal marijuana, but he has nevertheless defended Medford’s moratorium on dispensaries in court. He understands the reticence some of the councilors feel about marijuana.
“It’s hard to get your head around if you’re an older person,” he admits. “You’ve been told your whole life that marijuana’s bad. And according to the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, marijuana is medicine. It’s just like any other medicine. And you have to wrap your brain around that. And now with Measure 91 you have to wrap your brain around that marijuana is just like alcohol.”
So far McConnell has successfully defended the moratorium in several lawsuits. But even with the ban’s solid legal footing, the city council is looking at alternatives. “I think [the legal challenges are] maybe wearing on them a little bit as far as using their city attorney’s office to constantly fend off these suits.”
He thinks the new council may be able to see possible upsides. “Maybe we let them in, maybe they hire employees, and we have a tax.”
But Medford is not ready to open the floodgates quite yet. Currently the city is considering passing an ordinance that would require marijuana growers to prevent the odor from becoming a nuisance, as well as a stricter ordinance that would ban growing marijuana in all residential zones in the city.
In the bigger picture, McConnell and the city council are paying close attention to what kind of control they’ll have over marijuana businesses in the city beyond July 1. As they consider lifting the local moratorium, they want to see the legislature grant them some control over how facilities would operate.
“You want the ability to impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions as to all medical and retail licensees,” says McConnell.
Rob Patridge is chair of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the organization tasked with implementing legalized recreational marijuana. He is still waiting for state lawmakers to pass legislation that would tell him exactly what the legalized system needs to look like.
“They’ve hiked the ball but we’re not sure what play they’re running … So we’re trying to figure out what to do,” he says.
Some lawmakers have called for sales to start as soon as possible, but Patridge wants to wait until mid-to-late 2016. He’s worried legal sales soon will only encourage the black market, “because there will be a larger market for the product immediately.” Without a system in place, illegal grows could step in to fill that demand.
But that raises the question: If pot is legal to carry, but not to buy, where are people supposed to get it? Patridge says people “certainly can do the homegrow provisions if that’s what they choose to do … and there’s plenty of it out there running around currently.”
“I don’t want to encourage people to do illegal activity anymore, but I also want to put a system in place that’s going to work long-term to benefit Oregonians.”
Rep. Peter Buckley (D-Ashland) is a member of the Joint Committee for Implementing Measure 91 — the legislative body tasked with working out the implementation of recreational pot in Oregon. The committee recently unanimously approved HB 3400, which lays out many of the rules for the system. The bill will now go to the full house for a vote.
But Buckley sees some flaws with the bill that passed. He says the provision that allows local governments to ban pot stores in places where less than 45 percent of the population voted for Measure 91 is a “significant step back.”
He says he’s “tremendously concerned” that the opt-out option for local municipalities will make it harder for medical marijuana users to access pot. “We’re trying to clarify that they could have marijuana legally delivered to them.”
Buckley says “it’s a given” that pot will be reclassified on a national level in the near future, and he’s not sure this system will allow Oregon to a have a strong local pot economy — one that is ready to export to other states.
He says limiting the size of farms is crucial to making that happen. He’s concerned that if the current bill passes, big companies could come in and set up 100,000 square-foot grow operations.
“That’s going to bring the price down very, very low. The smaller farmer is going to have a harder time competing in that market.” He’s worried that by the time the larger market opens, all the local family farmers may be driven out of business.
That said, Buckley supports parts of the bill. Many pot-oriented businesses have had difficulty setting up bank accounts due to the federal marijuana law. That means they are often operated as “cash-only” businesses, which creates logistical issues and security risks.
Buckley think that some of the financial issues that pot businesses have faced should be alleviated soon. “I would say within two years I bet we will have a financial system that will work, because we simply can’t accept the status quo of an all-cash industry.”
A state task force has been set up to look into how to make that happen. So far, creating a state bank, and establishing a sovereign tribal bank are ideas that have been floated.
As for lab testing, Buckley says some of the issues with the current system will be alleviated in the retail system. “The OLCC will have a seed-to-sale tracking system, so there will be much greater ability to track marijuana from a grow site to a lab to make sure that you are testing the actual marijuana that will then go into the retail outlet for sale.”
He also anticipates that the ultimate mechanism for taxing marijuana will take the form of a sales tax — he supports a 17 percent tax. He says that should keep retail pot less expensive compared with Washington or Colorado, where recreational marijuana has recently been legalized.