Photographs by LeahNash.com
After two years of being unemployed, Kat Cambron recently borrowed $15,000 from her family, friends and credit cards and invested in marijuana.
An irrepressibly cheerful ex-financial officer, Cambron turned a former reptile rescue facility in Aloha into a medical-marijuana exchange. Opened the day before Thanksgiving, it now boasts 130 members who pay money to obtain and imbibe cannabis in the storefront space, a block off of Tualatin Valley Highway.
Cambron's investment is already paying off. On their biggest day yet, she and her business partner, Andrew Gwin, grossed $2,500. An average day is more like $1,700.
"Three months ago, I didn't know this was even possible," says Cambron, sitting in the lobby of her Wake n Bake Cannabis Lounge with her Pomeranian, Sassy, sitting in her lap. "We're trying to run this as a business like any other."
In the midst of Oregon's long economic malaise, you could be forgiven for failing to register one of the state's few economic bright spots—a burgeoning industry growing out of basements, gardens and converted shop fronts across the state.
And it's completely unregulated and under the radar.
Just three weeks before Cambron's club opened, 56 percent of Oregon voters rejected Measure 74, a ballot initiative that would have established a system of medical-marijuana dispensaries virtually indistinguishable from the outfit Cambron is running.
Oregon's somewhat unclear medical-marijuana law (see sidebar below) makes no mention of dispensaries—cardholders without a designated grower have to score weed on the black market. With Oregon unemployment stuck above 10 percent, entrepreneurs are moving in to fill the void by working in the seams.
"There are a lot of people pushing the envelope right now," says Paul Stanford, a longtime marijuana activist from Portland. "There were so many people geared up for [Measure] 74 to pass. Now they're moving forward anyway."
Others are holding back for fear of breaking the law.
"It's a total gray area," says Anthony Johnson, who co-wrote Measure 74. The board of his Portland nonprofit, Oregon Green Free, considered opening a dispensary-style club but killed the plan because the law is murky.
"People willing to enter that market are willing to take on a risky endeavor," Johnson says. "I fear it will have unintended consequences for the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, particularly in light of any bad publicity that may come about because of the lack of regulation."
Marijuana has long been the largest cash crop in Oregon. Bigger than wheat, bigger than grass seed, bigger than Christmas trees. Now, 12 years after Oregonians opened the door to medical marijuana, we're seeing what that industry looks like when it steps into the open.
Here are three tales from the marijuana market's front lines. First, the story of a mom-and-pop startup, the backbone of a pioneering trade. Second, a more sophisticated effort to franchise an Oregon business model nationwide. And third is a cautionary tale of economic boom and bust, from an old-school grower cynical of the new enterprise.
It's the Thursday afternoon before Christmas, and Cambron's Wake n Bake Cannabis Lounge is experiencing a busy rush as members stock up on their drug supply before the holidays (see sidebar to learn how the exchange works). They park out front, flash their ID and walk into a business where almost nothing is called by its common name.
After Measure 74 failed, the term "dispensary" became taboo. Cambron calls her place a "cannabis exchange." Their product is "medicine," and the customers are "patients." They don't sell marijuana—instead, cannabis is "available for reimbursement." The smoking den is a "medicating lounge." A store stocked with paraphernalia, seeds, soil, T-shirts and baby pot plants is a "green room."
Industry insiders estimate that around 30 such businesses pepper the state, from Portland to tiny Tri-City, population 3,500. No one knows exactly how many exist, because they're completely unregulated. More than 20 advertise in the trade publication Oregon Cannabis Connection, a bimonthly newspaper that published its first edition last June.
View Cannabis Exchanges, Co-Ops, Lounges in a full screen map
Although limited to participants in the medical-marijuana program, competition is nevertheless intense. Wake n Bake is the third club to open in the Beaverton-Aloha area, Cambron says. Without legal standing or regulation, Cambron says it's a bit like the Wild West. "But like any other industry, we're trying to do what is correct," she says.
And the risks are high. Last week, Cambron had her foster kids removed from her home. The Portland-based Boys and Girls Aid Society had been placing troubled teenage boys in her home since October 2009. But the nonprofit removed the three boys under her care Jan. 8—the day after she informed the nonprofit she was a medical-marijuana patient and had opened Wake n Bake.
"Many of our young people have drug addiction issues," says Michael Balter, head of Boys and Girls Aid Society. "If they can find that in the home, or smell it, or see it, that's very provocative."
Cambron's life changed in 2005, when she rolled her ATV on a trip to the Oregon Dunes. She broke her back and injured her right hip, her right shoulder and her neck.
Cambron had tried pot once as a teenager, but it put her to sleep. After spending years on heavy medication due to her ATV accident, she says she unwittingly ate a weed-laced cookie at a party in September and found it did more for her pain than pills.
"I personally would never have considered it an option," she says. "But after that day and how great I felt, I had to do some exploration."
Cambron became a certified medical-marijuana patient, but learned there were no resources from which to obtain medicine. She asked around and was introduced to 24-year-old Gwin, a recreational user turned activist and licensed medical-marijuana caregiver.
The two partners formed a nonprofit to open Wake n Bake regardless of whether Measure 74 passed. The risk seems to be paying off—Cambron believes the cannabis lounge should provide them both with a stable income.
"Just to be able to be in this kind of environment," Gwin says, "where patients don't have to be on the street—that is everything."
Jenifer Valley and Mike Mullins want to be the Burgerville of medical marijuana.
To readers of High Times, Valley is better known as Stoney Girl—founder of an award-winning commercial line of marijuana breeds. Now her Happy Valley company, Stoney Girl Gardens, is also opening a chain of medical-marijuana clubs around the state.
Three clubs have already opened with their help and training—in Salem, Ontario and, most recently, Wake n Bake in Aloha. Mullins, Valley's husband and business partner, says they expect to help open at least 40 more this year in Oregon.
"We don't want to see this operated out of a basement like some hippie-dippy thing," says Mullins, a fast-talking 56-year-old former business executive with a shock of white hair. "This is a legitimate industry now."
Valley grew up in small-town Ohio and left home to become a stripper, first in Louisiana, then in Portland. Her dancing career was cut short after she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1993. Doctors gave her six months to live.
"They were amazed that I refused to die," she says. "I didn't have a choice. I had to live. I had a 5-year-old child."
Now, at 42, she proudly shows off the white scar that spans her neckline from her cancer operation. She also prides herself on her looks—although it's her plants that have been featured in Skunk magazine's MILF section ("Marijuana I'd Like to Find").
"I've had police tell me I'm not sick enough to be in this [medical marijuana] program, because I'm pretty," she says.
Valley's sass belies the dogged determination she brings to advocating for pot patients. Her goal, she says, is to bring to the industry the regulations and standards for quality that the state and medical establishment have neglected to set.
Above all, Valley says, she aims to prevent the kind of free-market chaos that emerged when dispensaries boomed in California. She believes profiteers from the Golden State are set to move into Oregon's wide-open market.
"What they have in California is a circus, and they want to bring that here," Valley says. "Well, I'm not having it."
When Valley entered the medical-marijuana program in 1999, she says she had no idea how to grow her own pot. She met Mullins, who, besides his legitimate business background, says he spent decades as a black-market grower.
They produced strains that grow more quickly and pack the medicinal punch that patients need. Then they gave them away.
"On the black market, dealers don't share their strains with anyone," Valley says. "We would get ahold of these really good strains and pass them out to everybody."
In 2009, they started Stoney Girl Gardens. The company develops and markets its own varieties, runs growing classes and sells a special blend of soil, with organic fertilizer already inside. Their weed has been featured in national publications—most recently on the cover of the fourth edition of The Big Book of Buds, considered the bible of ganja growing.
To understand their business, think of Microsoft. Users don't own the software—they buy the right to use it. Stoney Girl sells packs of five or 10 seeds (at $20 per seed, $100 or $200 per package). But as Mullins explains it, what customers are actually buying is the right to the genetics inside. Reselling the seeds or the pot they produce is against the licensing agreement each buyer enters into, unless the customer is also licensed to resell.
And like Microsoft, the couple insists they won't hesitate to slap a lawsuit on anyone who violates their agreement or tries to steal their product. They're already preparing their first tort claim against a man who pirated their brand, Valley says.
To expand the brand, the couple last year began licensing with other startups, including Cambron's exchange in Aloha. Those clubs buy the right to display the Stoney Girl logo, sell Stoney Girl products and carry buds from Stoney Girl strains that have been grown to established standards. In return for the brand name and help in opening, Stoney Girl charges each club a one-time $5,000 fee.
Also in 2010, the couple opened Portlandsterdam University (motto: "Your Place for Higher Education"). For $225 in tuition, students learn how to grow and handle organic weed, produce edibles and open dispensary-style marijuana outlets.
The 17-hour course takes two days and is taught in the Monarch Hotel and Conference Center off I-205. Mullins estimates 200 people have graduated.
Mullins says he's invested about $150,000 of his own money. They haven't seen much of a return, but Mullins says it's only a matter of time. The couple plan to expand into all 15 states with medical-marijuana programs.
"This new movement is going to be bigger than the American industrial revolution, and it's already started," Mullins says. "We'll see profits. There's no question about it."
People like Valley, Mullins and Cambron present the optimistic face of a new industry. Dan Beaumont is their buzzkill.
Beaumont—not his real name—is a wiry 32-year-old who recently cut off his dreadlocks in favor of a gelled business cut. The new hairdo accompanied a lifestyle switch from black-market grower to family man and, this spring, a Portland State University grad.
After years of immersion in the Portland and Northern California pot scenes, Beaumont says the marijuana movement is based on three myths.
First is the contention that marijuana is not physically addictive. Beaumont insists it is. After smoking an ounce a day for five years, he says he managed to quit only after a long struggle that included painful withdrawal symptoms.
Second is the emphasis by medical-marijuana supporters that the program exists to serve sick people. Beaumont calls medical marijuana "a scam" cooked up mainly to enable recreational users. He says he knows dozens of healthy stoners who are in the program simply to gain a license to smoke. And he personally ran a black-market grow operation in Portland under the guise of medical marijuana.
Third is the belief that legalization will give birth to a new breed of American yeoman farmers. Beaumont says if the market is opened up and regulated, corporations would quickly take over production and small growers will be left in the dust.
"People are going to say I'm an asshole for saying all this. I don't care; I'm calling bullshit," Beaumont says, sipping tea on a couch in the Northeast Portland home where he harvested his last crop of Afghani Dream, G-Spot, Blueberry and Iced Grapefruit on the roof last October.
Beaumont grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family in Sitka, Alaska. He started smoking weed at age 13. When he was 15, he got kicked out of the house for rebelling against his parents' beliefs and was taken in by a drug dealer. He started selling pot.
The Navy kept his ganja habit in check for four years, but when he left the service in 2003 he picked up as a daily toker. He moved to Portland, where he lived in his sister's computer room, sold weed on Hawthorne Boulevard, and sat around Stumptown Coffee wondering what to do next.
He found his answer in summer 2005 when a friend invited him to Mendocino County, one of the "Emerald Triangle," along with Humboldt and Trinity, of ganja-growing counties in Northern California. He was hired at a grow north of Laytonville for $20 an hour, room and board provided.
"All of a sudden I'm in a pot field along the side of a mountain, and I was in heaven," he says. "I had all the pot to smoke I wanted. I was working in a ganja field, which was blissful work in the middle of the mountains, and I was making money."
He spent the winter back in Portland selling weed. In spring 2006, he returned to Mendocino County, where he fell more deeply into the pot culture that makes up most of the financial and power base in the Emerald Triangle.
The ganja farmers there grew under medical-marijuana law, but most of their patients were fake—every grow used copies of the same cards, Beaumont says. Most growers had operated illegally before medical pot came along, and all sold their crop on the black market.
"For these people, it's a way of life. It's their only economic opportunity," he says. "This medical thing, it's just a way to protect established growers. Absolutely."
In 2006, an established grower lent Beaumont a 20-acre field to plant and tend, in exchange for half the crop. Beaumont slept alone in a hammock in a stand of tanoaks with a pump-action .30-30. He came back to Portland that winter with thousands of dollars in cash and 20 pounds of weed.
Beaumont's run in Northern California ended in spring 2008, when he says the owners of the property where he was growing ripped him off. He enrolled in Portland State University as a communications major and tried to kick his ounce-a-day weed habit. But he says he broke down during the withdrawal—hallucinations, chills and sweats. He felt betrayed.
"I thought I'd found it all—medicine for my mind, money to meet my needs and a rural community," he says. "In the end I got ripped off by my friends, I was out of a job and I was addicted to marijuana."
Beaumont moved in with his girlfriend in Northeast Portland in spring 2009 and started growing—first indoors, then outdoors during the summer and fall of 2010. He had four patients and says he grew the maximum of six plants each that the law allows.
He gave each patient a free ounce each month and sold the rest. That brought in about $4,200 a month. But with a baby daughter at home and PSU graduation looming in the spring, he decided to exit the business. He harvested his last crop in October and also managed to quit smoking.
"The paranoia, the dishonesty, the constant fear of being robbed—they all became this never-ending presence in my life," he says. "I don't miss any of it."
Beaumont estimates there's one illegal grow operation on every city block in Portland. But because most of the industry is still underground, Beaumont says the public has little understanding of the massive effects it has on the economy, public health and the environment.
It's also a market crying out for regulation. But if the government finally wakes up and engages in a realistic policy, Beaumont says that will be the end of the trade as he knew it. Corporations will take over.
But that change may be inevitable.
"There is an industry that exists," Beaumont says. "People like to get high, and they're going to get high. Prohibition never works. Medical marijuana as an industry is about legitimizing marijuana use for whatever reason, be it medical or largely recreational. I think that's fine. There should not be prohibition. What's screwed up about it is that it's legal and it's unregulated. It is not healthy."
GROWING PAINS: Beaumont holds some of the Afghani Dream buds harvested from his Northeast Portland roof last October.
estimated number of pot plants in Oregon
estimated pounds of weed produced in Oregon annually
estimated value of Oregon's marijuana crop
estimated value of hay, Oregon's second-largest cash crop
Marijuana Production in the United States
patients, including pending applications
caregivers, licensed to carry pot for patients
growers, allowed to grow up to
mature plants each
The law in Oregon allows patients to possess and use pot on a doctor's recommendation. Patients can either buy weed on the black market or designate a grower. Each grower can provide for up to four patients, with a limit of six mature plants per patient. Growers may charge patients for the expense of growing (lamps and fertilizer, for example), but growers are forbidden from charging for their time or turning a profit. The result: Many medical growers also sell on the black market.
Fifteen states have legalized medical marijuana, but only seven of those states allow dispensaries to sell pot to patients. Oregon law makes no mention of dispensaries. But in the past two years, dispensary-style operations have cropped up across the state calling themselves co-ops, private clubs and lounges. Some give away weed for free. Others charge membership dues or take cash to cover growers' expenses. Here's how Wake n Bake in Aloha works: Patients pay $20 a month for membership. Growers pay a "storage and handling fee" and provide their weed on consignment. Patients pay $140 to $190 an ounce, and the money goes back to the grower.
People who are opening these clubs say yes. John Sajo and Anthony Johnson, the authors of a failed ballot measure that would have established regulated dispensaries in Oregon, are doubtful. Sgt. Dave Thompson, spokesman for the sheriff's office in Washington County (where Wake n Bake is located), says the Westside Interagency Narcotics Team is now researching whether the clubs are legal. "They're just so new that [cops] don't really know what the legalities are," Thompson says. "It's one of those things that, somebody's gotten creative, and it may or may not fall within the confines of the law. We'll just have to find out."
Last year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Obama administration would lay off state-sanctioned medical-marijuana operations. That prompted the first dispensary-style clubs to open in Oregon. But Holder recently clarified that statement to say the feds will bust operations that are not in strict compliance. On Jan. 6, feds in Las Vegas charged 15 people for running storefront dispensaries, saying there's no provision for commercial marijuana sales under Nevada law.