Marijuana enthusiasts are accustomed to the blooming gardens of Oregon. While our neighbors to the north set up the nation's first marijuana shops open to out-of-staters, we've at least had liberal rules to govern our local bouquet, with about 55 dispensaries in the Portland area, according to Weedmaps.com and Leafly.com.
But, quietly, over the past two weeks, at least 13 Oregon medical marijuana dispensaries have been shuttered. And more might follow thanks to Oregon's Senate Bill 1531, a new law that gives cities the right to set their own rules for dispensaries and marks the death of the Ziploc.
Only 14 Portland dispensaries were approved for business as of April 4. Many others are still operating while their paperwork is processed.
Most of the drama was unnecessary, and only came about because dispensary operators weren't up to code to begin with. Hopefully, the dispensaries that reopen will have learned two important lessons. First, that it's important to pay attention to new laws and file paperwork in a timely fashion. Second, that the optics of how medical marijuana is packaged and sold matter to people beyond their clients. The new laws force a more professional approach to pot, probably for everyone's benefit in the long run.
The closed dispensaries could have avoided spendy inconveniences if they'd listened to Oregon Public Broadcasting in the last six months. The rules for location, security and product testing have been outlined since then. The industry's smarter actors listened. For example, Jeremy Plumb of Farma+, a local grower and distributor to multiple dispensaries, was relieved when he dug in and learned that only products with attractive packaging would be banned, after hearing rumors of all edibles being outlawed. "The new rules simply underscore the fluid nature of cannabis regulation," he says. "All of us need to stay on top of the law, because we are in a period of profound transition."
For most of the closed dispensaries, it's only a matter of time before they reopen.
That is, unless they're in a city that decides to crack down. Local governments can now regulate how dispensaries operate, including their hours and location, and can shut down any facility until May 1 of next year. More conservative cities are already flexing this new muscle, with dispensary bans being passed in Ontario and Medford.
The most serious fight on the horizon is whether city cops, acting under color of federal law, will begin harassing dispensaries in conservative areas of the state. The rules and how they apply to local, state and federal laws are muddier than ever now. In Portland, we have the luxury of lighting a joint and watching the melee play out. But the effect on medical marijuana cardholders in rural areas could be extreme.
Becky Straus, lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, says the changes could "open the door to more such local proposals that would effectively strip registrants of their ability to obtain medical marijuana if they don't submit to highly invasive regulations or, in some cases, completely." Jackson County passed a dispensary moratorium last week, forcing its 7,200 cardholding residents to grow their own or find a grower until May 2015. For most patients, neither of those options is as safe or dependable as going to a licensed dispensary.
On the other side, Rob Bovett, legal counsel and policy manager for the Association of Oregon Counties, emphasizes that the explicit right to "regulate or opt out of dispensaries would have avoided years of protracted, expensive and needless litigation." He notes that cities in California and Washington have always had this authority, and considers the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program "the most unregulated marijuana dispensary program in our nation."
The Portland dispensaries experiencing negative effects are mainly those that ignored basic rules from the start. It's now costing them in legal fees and forced relocation. With dispensary clerk becoming the new barista gig for underemployed liberal arts grads, many young shops with witty names and hip, modern décor are feeling the effects the hardest. That's because they were more focused on their Instagram accounts than obscure legal jargon.
After things settle, the biggest differences average patients will notice are the move to child-resistant safety packaging for all products and new security systems. There are more than 10,000 licensed patients in Multnomah County, and some are willing to trek across town for a good batch of Matanuska Thunder Fuck. New dispensaries should leave the punny name game to the strip clubs and spend their energy on the right equipment and a knowledgeable staff. As long as the medicinal marijuana community stays aware of its state rights and requirements—or just hires good lawyers—everyone can face the future with high hopes. After all, there's still THC-infused root beer and spaghetti sauce on the shelves. Someday, we might even get a medible macaron cart.
Just don't put a Scooby-Doo label on it.