Budding Conflicts

An Amsterdam-style pot bar is the latest controversy in Oregon's marijuana world.

For Mario Mamone, the dream of opening a marijuana cafe started 10 years ago on his first trip to Amsterdam, where he visited famous hash bars like Green House and Dampkring.

Now the 62-year-old retired wildlife biologist is close to bringing his vision to Gladstone. This month he plans to open the Maritime Cafe in a Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard strip mall, between a Curves Fitness Center and a headshop called the Stash. The cafe will be open only to medical-marijuana patients over 18. Plans by Mamone and his partner, Tim Welsh, include intimate booths, pot-leaf murals and killer buds for $10 a gram.

"We're looking for a place where people can come and hang and listen to music," Mamone says. "A romantic atmosphere."

Maritime will be the latest addition to a growing industry in Oregon. Voters last year defeated a ballot measure that would have set up rules for a statewide system of dispensaries to sell pot to patients. The measure's failure didn't stop people from opening dispensary-style businesses (see "Weed, the People," Jan. 12, 2011). The shops remain unregulated, and some establishments push the boundaries between clinic and social club. 

That's made them a bigger target for law enforcement and opened rifts inside the medical-marijuana movement.

"These places are set up like a party," says Donald Morse, who helps run the Human Collective clinic in Tigard. "You don't see people on dialysis having a party."

Oregon's medical-marijuana law, approved by voters in 1998, makes no mention of dispensaries. But it allows patients to designate a grower, and it lets those growers charge patients for expenses like fertilizer, lights and power.

Advocates say Oregon's program is flawed for patients who lack a grower. Club operators like Mamone say they're working within the law to fill that need.

Law enforcement stands ready to harsh their mellow.

"I am confident the residents of Gladstone do not want a marijuana coffeehouse in their community," says Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote. "If he wants to dance around the edge of the law, he runs the risk of getting arrested."

Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2009 the Justice Department would end the Bush administration's raids on state-sanctioned medical-marijuana facilities. Pot remains illegal under federal law. But this spring saw an apparent change in policy, as federal prosecutors wrote letters to governors in Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Vermont and Rhode Island threatening a crackdown on dispensaries.

U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby in Spokane vowed "quick and direct action" in an April 6 letter to Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, who promptly vetoed a bill to license growers and dispensaries. Spokane-area pot shops saw a string of closures.

No such letter has gone out in Oregon, and interim U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton wouldn't say whether he's planning similar action. But it's clear Holton is no friend to folks like Mamone.

"I'm struck by the brazenness of recent dispensaries who seem to think they are above the law," Holton says. "It's drug trafficking. Period. End of story."

Dispensaries aren't legal in Oregon, so operators call them "clubs" or "co-ops." They claim to work on a consignment model: Growers give weed to the club, which sells it to patients and reimburses the growers. The clubs charge membership fees.

Portland cops aren't concerned, says Lt. Robert King, a spokesman for the police bureau. Clubs in Southeast include Foster Healing Center and Highway 420. 

"It's more or less a regulated and lawful establishment," King says. "We assist if they need any assistance, but by and large they don't."

Not so in the suburbs. After WW featured the Aloha club Wake n Bake in our Jan. 12 cover story, co-owner Kat Cambron says Washington County sheriff's deputies have pulled over about a dozen members as they leave.

Cambron says the members are searched, given roadside sobriety tests and questioned about the club. No one has been arrested, but Cambron worries they face harassment due to their medical needs.

"If you see somebody pulling out of a place where you know people are smoking marijuana, you're going to watch how they're driving," says Sgt. Dave Thompson, spokesman for the sheriff's office. "They're aware it's there. Nobody's targeting it."

Elsewhere in Washington County, Morse's nonprofit Human Collective looks and feels like a doctor's office. Patients purchase weed in child-proof medicine bottles for $5 to $8 a gram.

"Maybe we're deluding ourselves, but we like to think places like Wake n Bake should be busted before this place," Morse says. "We would be honored to be the test pilot for how it should be done."

FACT: As of April 1 there were 39,774 patients registered with the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. By county: 6,796 in Multnomah, 2,735 in Washington and 2,835 in Clackamas.