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Cannabarista Chelsea Harvey displays marijuana dispensed to Oregon Medical Marijuana Program patients at ReLeaf MM, a storefront in east Portland. Like video stores did in the 90s, storefronts are popping up like weeds all over east Portland.
Mid-county Memo photos/Tim Curran
Trish Wiegele travels from Oregon City to east Portland's Herbalist Farmer on Northeast 122nd Avenue to acquire medical marijuana.
A grower shows one of his strains of cannabis to Oregon Medical Marijuana Program enrollee Richard Johnson at the World Famous Cannabis Café, 322 S.E. 82nd Ave. in east Portland.
Cher Nuttall, who runs the weekly bingo game at the World Famous Cannabis Café, and a volunteer budtender medicate.
Jason Walker, who owns Flower to The People in the Roseway neighborhood, is a second-generation marijuana-growing bootlegger, who is happy becoming a legitimate businessperson.
All over east Portland, medical marijuana storefronts are springing up like weeds (forgive the pun). About a dozen opened in and just around the Memo's mailed circulation area (Northeast Sandy Blvd. to East Burnside Street and from 82nd to 162nd avenues), in the last eighteen months.. The Memo visited 11 storefronts for this report.

Portland is not the first city to experience a proliferation of storefronts. As of July 2011, the city of Denver, Colo., counted more medical marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks franchises.

“It's about safe access for patients and that's what these places provide,” said Attorney Paul Loney, listed as the registered agent for three of the storefronts visited, and an activist in the marijuana legalization movement.

Owners call their storefronts-depending on the semantic bent-cafes, collectives, clubs, co-ops, lounges, or safe access points (medical marijuana and legalization advocates prefer this last term). They provide a place for Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) patients to openly acquire-and, in some cases consume-marijuana.

Currently, the unsanctioned storefronts exist and operate in the vagaries of the 1998 Oregon Medical Marijuana Act's wording.

To ameliorate this circumstance and regulate every storefront in the state, last session Oregon lawmakers passed House Bill 3460. Governor John Kitzhaber signed it into law in August. After creation of rules and regulations, the new law goes in effect March 2014.

Last fall, voters in Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana for medical and adult recreational use.

Last month, the Justice Department sent a letter to all 50 states saying it would not enforce federal laws regarding marijuana in states where voters have approved legalization as long as those states maintain strict rules involving distribution of the drug. However, the Justice Department maintains, “…Prosecution of commercial enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana for profit continues to be a priority of USDOJ.”

Loney thinks storefronts are what law enforcement types should be applauding. “You go in to a nice, well-kept business; nobody sees what's happening; they walk out, nobody knows what they have, it's all very safe, all these places have security systems.” He added, “It takes it off the streets. It's not this free-for-all like some of the law enforcement would like you to believe.”

Martin Lee, author of “Smoke Signals,” a comprehensive social history of marijuana, said in a recent interview on National Public Radio, “The way the Justice Department words these things; they can justify any policy in the future. Marijuana prohibition is not about preventing people from using marijuana, it's about allowing government to take action and selective repression against certain groups in society; that's been the history all along.

“There's such a widespread cognitive dissonance around Federal policy towards marijuana; the idea that it has no medical value and that it's a dangerous drug, which is the official position still of the Federal government, despite these new guidelines.” He added, “Eighty percent of Americans are strongly pro-choice with the respect to the option of medical marijuana.”

Also last month, the odd couple of anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and our own progressive congressman Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., teamed up to introduce a bill that changes the law preventing owners of legal storefronts from deducting business costs on their federal tax returns. Currently, storefront owners pay a rate as high as 87.5 percent.

“These businesses cannot deduct entirely legitimate operating business expenses,” said Blumenauer in a news release. “They cannot claim the work opportunity tax credit if they hire a veteran, depreciate their American-made irrigation equipment, or utilize the deductions for the expenses associated with their operating costs. As a result these small businesses are paying federal income taxes that are often double or triple the effective tax rate of most businesses.”

First, some background on Oregon's history with Medical cannabis.

Oregon Medical Marijuana Program
In 1998, Oregon voters approved Ballot Measure 67, the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, providing legal protections for qualified patients and allowing the manufacture, possession and use of marijuana and its byproducts for medical purposes. To register and administer patients, in May 1999 the Oregon Health Authority (Oregon Department of Human Services then) created the OMMP, which went into effect with 600 enrollees that first year.

According to the latest OHA figures, as of Aug. 31 there are 130,738 enrollees in one of three categories: registered patients, 58,158; unique growers 43,489; and unique caregivers, 29,091 (unique meaning if one person holds two or more caregiver or grower cards, they are counted only once).

The OMMP is fee supported. No state funds go to administer it.

How many are recreational users?

No one knows for sure.

However, many speculate the number must be in the thousands due to more than 60 years of prohibition and the desires of otherwise law-abiding, tax paying citizens to avoid legal entanglements.

When Americans consume marijuana recreationally, they break the law. Whether or not you agree with it, marijuana prohibition criminalizes and stigmatizes an entire class of Americans who, with impunity, continue to break a law they find silly and specious. Nevertheless, the United States incarcerates more of its citizens for violating marijuana laws than any other nation on earth.

Non-violent civil disobedience is an honored American tradition. When government seeks to regulate behavior that punishes people based on injurious and inequitable laws, it quickly loses the respect of those it seeks to govern.

The inherent right-duty, for that matter-to violate unjust laws is inculcated in the American spirit. The country was founded through armed revolution based on the principle of breaking laws that restrict freedom.

Throughout American history, when enough people break stupid and unjust laws-Prohibition, slavery, Jim Crow-eventually, a plurality of Americans agrees. It's happening with marijuana prohibition right now.

Besides the staggering ignorance of these laws, America cannot afford them anymore. A 2007 study by Forbes magazine found that, including lost tax revenues, enforcing marijuana prohibition costs taxpayers $41.8 billion annually.

The fact there are thousands with a real medical need for cannabis is lost in these arguments.

Thousands more are eligible for the program, but for a variety of reasons, don't apply. “If you look at the statistics, of the number of cards in Oregon versus the number of people who would qualify, it's a small percentage,” Loney said. “Very few cancer patients, percentage wise, feel free to use medical marijuana. There should be a lot more; people are afraid.”

Doctors recommend marijuana to patients for treatment of a variety of debilitating medical conditions that include vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy, glaucoma, nausea and muscular spasticity-multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injuries. Cannabis is used to alleviate symptoms of movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease, Tourette's syndrome, Huntington's disease, and for treatment of AIDS symptoms and severe pain.

Recognizing marijuana's ability to relieve Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms, the Oregon legislature recently added PTSD to the list of conditions.

To enroll in the OMMP, a patient needs a doctor's signature on a State form recommending cannabis as a treatment for a specific malady. The patient mails the form, along with a $200 registration fee, to Salem.

If someone besides the patient is designated as grower, it's an additional $50. If a patient is incapacitated, they can designate a third party (caregiver), to obtain, possess and transport marijuana on their behalf for no additional fee. After a few months, the State issues the patient (where applicable, to the designated grower and caregiver also) an OMMP card.

That's where State involvement ends. Unless a patient knows growers, they are on their own. Before the advent of storefronts, cardholders turned to the black market for relief; they still do. Finding a reliable, consistent cannabis cultivator isn't easy. They aren't in the phone book, or on Craigslist.

Growers are limited to four patients and can grow six mature plants per patient. A patient, caregiver and grower may possess a combined total of up to a pound and a half of usable marijuana for that patient.

How did storefronts emanate?

The Granddaddy-more properly Grandma, as it is owned by a woman-of all Oregon medical marijuana storefronts is the World Famous Cannabis Café. The first in Oregon and first in America, it's housed in a space formerly occupied by a piano bar on Southeast 82nd Avenue near Stark Street.

In November, “sole proprietress” Madeleine Martinez, former head of Oregon's chapter of the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and a patient herself, marks her storefront's four-year anniversary. “I've been to Amsterdam, there's no place like it [her cafe] in the world where medicine is given away free,” Martinez said.

In meetings held in 2001 with law-enforcement representatives and Mike Schrunk (Multnomah County District Attorney at the time), Martinez described her vision of creating a space for patients to socialize. “Being a disabled person already puts you in a different category with depression; dealing with the symptoms of your condition, along with isolation, it really makes for a difficult life.” With a background as a corrections officer, Martinez also described security and access procedures she would institute. “I suggested we might want our own place and he [Schrunk] said we couldn't do it, for various reasons.”

However, in 2009, shortly after US Attorney General Eric Holder re-directed the Drug Enforcement Administration away from medical cannabis and its growers, the first incarnation of the WFCC opened on Northeast Dekum Street. By July 2010, it settled in east Portland.

Oregon's law says the patient's registered grower is entitled to reimbursement for expenses incurred. In a storefront, growers deal directly with patients not their own-growers have access to a wider pool of patients. Not sold cannabis; growers donate it to patients for which the storefront/growers receive their suggested reimbursement/donation.

Skating a thin line between Federal illegal and State legal, storefront operators scrupulously avoid the terms buy and sell. In the federal government's eyes, those words constitute an illegal commercial drug business; but according to Oregon law they're not; just another example of the inherent bi-polar policy of prohibition laws.

Despite legal sanctions, production of marijuana in Oregon has been a thriving underground business for decades. According to estimates by NORML, behind only wheat, hay and hazelnuts, marijuana is the fourth leading cash crop in Oregon, producing 56,000 pounds a year worth more than $165 million. In California, TIME Magazine reported that the state's marijuana crop generates $14 billion in sales, making it the state's leading cash crop.

House Bill 3460
Convinced of the efficacy of marijuana, State Rep. Michael Dembrow, who represents District 45 in Northeast Portland, said public safety is one concern of legislators. “The primary purpose of this legislation is to allow us to regulate these entities,” he said. “What we're trying to do is interpret the wishes of the voters, who have repeatedly said they want medical marijuana and want it in a way they can trust.” He added, “The sense is that for a lot of people, they [storefronts] are providing a necessary service. Many people need medical marijuana, but they don't know where to get it. There are many older people who would like to have a place to go to where they have confidence they are acting within the letter of the law and the product they're buying is not full of arsenic.”

With a $4,000 licensing fee for each of the 225 dispensaries (the number of expected applications), the law will generate an estimated $900,000 in revenue over the next two years, according to an analysis of House Bill 3460 by the State's Legislative Fiscal Office.

Besides the District of Columbia and Oregon, four other states-Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Nevada-are in the process of opening state-sanctioned storefronts. Six more states-Maine, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado-have state-licensed Medical cannabis storefronts.

To shortstop full legalization moves via initiative petition, and to maintain more control over the language of the law, Dembrow said legislators are talking about creating their own bill for full legalization for referral to the voters. “We're talking about it; Peter [Buckley D-Ashland] is leading on this issue,” Dembrow said.

About one-third of Americans say they think legalizing marijuana would boost the economy, according to a 2010 poll by Associated Press-CNBC.

In another AP/CNBC poll, more than 60 percent of states agree with taxing marijuana.

In 2011, The New York Times reported Colorado made $5 million in sales-tax revenue from medical marijuana businesses.

East Potlandia
Multnomah County has 9,685 OMMP patients, 7,350 unique growers and 4,752 unique caregivers.

Access to storefronts is tightly controlled; you can't just walk in. Every storefront has either a locked front or security door. Patients ring a buzzer and then, like in a bar, their OMMP cards and Oregon ID are checked for validity.

A memo circulated by Portland's former police chief to officers directed them to leave storefronts alone unless there is an incident or robbery. A mostly cash business, the reward is great, but so are the risks-three owners we talked to have been robbed, one at gunpoint.

Due to the longtime illegality of cannabis, a feeling of furtiveness pervades the storefronts. Everyone knows open law breaking is going on and that at any minute, police could come busting through the door and start arresting people.

Some storefronts serve as community-building spaces where patients socialize and medicate in open, safe and alcohol-free environments like the WFCC, which dispenses marijuana, but is dedicated to the social aspect of cannabis use. “'Welcome home' is the greeting cardholders get when they walk in, because we feel they are really coming to a welcoming home,” said Martinez.

Thursdays at the WFCC are Burgers and Blues night, with live music. Weekly bingo games are on Wednesdays and the café regularly hosts cannabis related education and promulgation events; some with, some without live music.

Martinez said patients could come to her café from open to close (10 a.m. to 10 p.m.), pay the $5 door charge and smoke her cannabis all day, if they want.

Another difference between storefronts is products. Some sell paraphernalia, some carry cannabis plant clones and seeds. Many shops offer BHO (butane honey or hash oil), a concentrated form of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Afraid of backlash, we met many patients willing to speak only on condition of anonymity about how cannabis helps them. “There's still discrimination based on housing and employment,” Loney said.

An OMMP patient who requested anonymity said she uses cannabis for her diagnosed PTSD, and was only recently granted permission to medicate at the retirement home where she lives and said she didn't want to “push it,” by going public on this issue. “I served my country for a long time, and now I have to sneak around like a criminal; it's a shame.”

Many storefront patrons told the Memo how using cannabis-ingesting and smoking-has weaned them from harsher pharmaceuticals. “I used to use Percocet and Oxycodone for pain,” said Richard Johnson, a regular at the WFCC. “Using marijuana has gotten me off them, and I'm so glad.”

Another WFCC denizen, 63-year-old Paul Crollard said, “My only regret is that I didn't learn about this place years ago.” He said he visits the WFCC at least a few times a month, and enjoys the atmosphere. “It's [WFCC] a place I can go without all the crap I get going to a bar.”

Some storefronts dispense only-GR8 Stop Med Shop, Alternative Farmacy and Oregon Medical Cannabis Club's two locations; no socializing or consuming. For that, patients frequent the WFCC, Flower to the People, Mt. Hood Wellness Center, ReLeaf MM and the Herbalist Farmer, all in east Portland.

“Most of them [storefronts], they all pay their taxes, they all want to be part of the local community,” said attorney Loney. “Most of the safe access points I know and work with all have food drives in the holidays because their patients are lower income.” He added, “They keep their storefronts clean; many of these storefronts were abandoned or run down. With [on-site] security, it makes the surrounding neighborhoods more secure.” Loney said studies in California have shown crime actually decreases in neighborhoods with marijuana storefronts.

Many owners are long-time marijuana cultivators stepping out of the shadows and becoming legitimate business owners, like Jason Walker, a 32-year-old self-described second-generation marijuana bootlegger, who owns Flower to the People in the Roseway neighborhood. With his business, Walker said, he can finally “come out of the closet,” so to speak. Walker said he enjoys the work: Meeting patients, dealing with growers, meeting with neighbors and the neighborhood association, and being legitimate. “I've never been involved with something that has such strong-rooted ties in politics, morality, religion; it's a difficult sea to navigate.” He added, “To go from being a second-generation bootlegger to sitting behind a counter and legitimizing the underground; It's definitely an interesting ride, to be involved with it all.”

He sees the cannabis business as a good thing for America. Not only on a regional scale, but a global one as well, and likens it to the domino effect. “Until we decide to export marijuana we're not making money off this [as a country]; we're just re-circulating our own dollars. We're chasing our tails. It's a matter of time; Ten, 20 years before we have half the world on board. Morocco is looking at changing their laws.”

In the meantime, he sees cannabis as an economic driver and part of the solution to employment and manufacturing woes. “This industry will blossom,” he said, “legitimizing marijuana will bring a boost to business: soil companies, light manufacturers, the raw materials for ingestible byproducts, fertilizer manufacturers, paraphernalia makers.”

When the hydroponic marijuana-growing supply chain weGrow opens a new store, it creates an estimated 75 jobs indirectly, according to AZ Business Magazine.

He asserts that unless Oregonians take control of their homegrown industry, the State will lose millions in revenue and hundreds of jobs to out-of-state companies that will set up shop in Oregon with out-of-state management teams. “Sure, they'll hire locals,” he said. “But the profits will leave Oregon. I've seen out of state companies setting up here. You've seen a humongous jump in the availability of vendors [for the ingestible market and other products], just since the dispensary bill was signed,” Walker said.

Walker's property owner, Addie Lindstrom, owner of Addie's You and I Travel Service across the street said Walker is an exemplary tenant. “He painted the building, he's met with neighbors, the neighborhood association, he's following all the rules; pays the rent on time. I'm lucky to have him.”

Like Dembrow, for longtime Russell Neighborhood Association Chair Bonny McKnight, the debate on the salutary effects of marijuana is over. “It [medical marijuana] is absolutely legitimate. It seems to me what they're [storefronts] doing right now is fine. I have no problem with that.”

Because of the prohibition, she thinks marijuana has a poor image and that as a society we should be dealing with it in a more professional manner. “The core of this is not the marijuana; the core of it is medical. If I were doing it, I would want it to be a prescription drug, like all other drugs.”

However, not all neighborhood associaiton leaders are in favor of allowing storefronts to operate without interference. Mary Walker, Parkrose Neighborhood Association chair said in an email to Historic Parkrose members with a picture of the GR8 Stop Med Shop attached (a new storefront in Parkrose), “One of our newer businesses! Any thoughts? I'm presenting to PPB [Portland Police Bureau] in question. What can be done about this? Deal with Federal?”

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