Even for Oregon, a state with a generally tolerant take on marijuana, the passage of Measure 91 represents a seismic shift.
By next summer, police won’t issue citations for having small amounts of marijuana. Your neighbors will be able to grow marijuana and possess up to eight ounces of the drug. Plus, anyone 21 and older can have an assortment of cannabis products: concentrated forms, like hash oil, and foods, like marijuana-infused cookies, sodas, ice cream and other treats. Away from home, they can stash up to an ounce of pot – roughly 28 joints – in their pocket, purse or briefcase.
And sometime in 2016, Oregon marijuana will be grown, processed and sold at facilities licensed, regulated and inspected by the state – a radical transformation of a lucrative industry that has operated in the shadows and often outside of the law.
Though there have been subtle changes since the law’s passage – Portland-area prosecutors, for instance, are reviewing their marijuana possession cases and may dismiss some – key details of how Oregon will regulate the marijuana industry remain unknown.
Questions like how many shops will be allowed and where they will be located, whether medical marijuana dispensaries will shift to recreational shops and how to keep kids from getting their hands on the drug have yet to be resolved.
The new law gives broad authority to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to write rules for a system that will track marijuana from seed to sale, an approach designed to keep the drug from leaking onto the black market. That rule-making process isn’t expected to kick into gear until early 2015.
What you’re not likely to see is a rash of people smoking joints in Laurelhurst Park or at the Oregon Coast. Like Colorado and Washington, Oregon’s legal pot law prohibits consuming in public, just as with alcohol. And Measure 91 doesn’t change landlord-tenant or employment laws. Your boss and your landlord can still impose drug-free policies.
What you are likely to see, as the law is implemented, is lots of water cooler conversations about whether it will lead to more pot use and a proliferation of marijuana shops. Homeowners may end up crowding city council meetings to oppose marijuana stores in their neighborhoods. And parents will have to figure out what to tell their kids.
Herman Greene, of North Portland, said he’ll sit down with his five kids — ages 12 to 20 — this weekend to talk about the new law. He’ll remind them that marijuana, like alcohol, remains off limits to them. As with liquor, you have to be 21 to possess and grow marijuana.
Beyond that, he’s not sure what to say.
“That’s why I need to sit down and really put some thought into this … so we are not simply saying, ‘You can’t,’ but why you shouldn’t,” he said.
Pot and government
By some accounts, Denver doesn’t look a whole lot different now that marijuana is legal, said Matt Cook, an architect of Colorado’s medical marijuana program and an industry and government consultant. Pot-smoking Coloradoans aren’t flooding the streets.
“The sun still comes up in the East and sets in the West,” he said. “Nothing has really changed other than we have a recreational market.”
But signs that pot has gone mainstream in Colorado are easy to spot. Denver is home to about 200 storefronts selling medical or recreational marijuana, and in many cases, both.
This week, retailers with shops clustered along a busy Denver thoroughfare informally known as the “Green Mile” for its concentration of marijuana stores met with other shop owners to talk about marketing the pot-friendly strip.
Tim Cullen, who owns one of the 17 marijuana stores on South Broadway, thought his fellow business owners would be happy to join forces. He was wrong. Many told him they don’t want to be associated with the marijuana trade.
“What I don’t want to do is make all of my neighbors angry at me,” he said. “I wanted to start with a wholesome idea, but if it turns out it can’t happen, then it can’t happen.”
Oregon, the first state to decriminalize cannabis more than 40 years ago, has a long history with marijuana cultivation and use. In the late 1990s, Oregon voted for medical marijuana, a program that’s skyrocketed in popularity since its inception and fueled a thriving culture of marijuana cultivation statewide. Nowhere is the popularity of marijuana more obvious than in southern Oregon, home to lush outdoor pot gardens that dot rural byways and hamlets.
Karen Sprague, a longtime outdoor medical marijuana grower in the Rogue Valley, said she’s ready for government regulation.
“I want to be a legitimate business person,” said Sprague, who figures support for Measure 91 ran about 50-50 among outdoor growers. “I want to be able to file taxes and do everything that everybody else gets the opportunity to do. It’s a relief that we are moving toward that.”
For many Oregonians, legal marijuana legitimizes something they’re already doing. When it comes to marijuana, Oregon is second only to Alaska, the other state to legalize marijuana last week, in marijuana use among people 26 and older, according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a federal agency.
The Oregon Legislative Revenue Office, in a report that looked at the fiscal implications of pot legalization, estimates that about 11 percent of Oregonians 21 and older are “regular” marijuana consumers, based on public health data. The state estimates that a regulated market would increase marijuana use among people 21 and older by about 4 percent.
“Let’s be honest,” said Rob Bovett, legal counsel for the Association of Oregon Counties. “A lot of Oregonians already manufacture and use and share with their friends.”
The new law gives the liquor commission until the end of next year to draft rules so much about how the program will look is not yet known.
Will marijuana shops marked with neon green pot leaves pop up on every block? Who can get a commercial license to grow and sell marijuana? Will communities use the law’s provision to opt out of recreational marijuana? Will neighbors be notified before a marijuana shop moves in next door? How will marijuana-infused edibles, a popular and growing part of the medical marijuana market, be packaged and labeled? How will the state ensure pot stays out of the hands of kids?
All of those issues and many others, such as how marijuana will be produced and tested, will be on the table when the liquor commission begins making rules next year.
“We sort of gave them the power they have for taverns and brew pubs and wine stores,” said Dave Kopilak, a Portland lawyer who drafted Measure 91. Kopilak said much of the act is modeled on the state’s liquor law.
Some of the deeper social issues raised by legal pot will take longer to answer: Will it lead to increased teen use and impaired driving? Will more Oregonians consume marijuana now that it’s legal?
Public attention rising
In Washington, lawyer Hilary Bricken said she’s noticed a shift from the heady days after legalization was approved.
People who had been ambivalent took an interest once they saw marijuana stores opening in their neighborhoods. She said they started packing local meetings and complaining about the marijuana industry.
“All of a sudden, city council meetings become extremely important,” said Bricken. “People become nosy neighbors. They are reporting any activity to the state to prevent pot shops from moving in.”
Last year, Bricken, who advises marijuana businesses, said she was helping clients moving through Washington’s licensing process.
“This year I am trying to defeat a gaggle of NIMBYs that are attacking my clients in droves,” she said.
She called Measure 91 a “blank slate” that will over time be filled in with regulations and requirements that ultimately may leave advocates and industry insiders unhappy.
“People should remember their euphoria now,” she said. “It’s not going to last long once government regulators get involves. There will be legal clashes. People are not going to get what they initially expected.”
Staff writer Fedor Zarkhin contributed to this report.
— Noelle Crombie