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Feb. 23, 2020

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Oregon pot deals with growing pains

State’s cannabis industry notches wins over the years, but issues remain

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A budtender shows a top cannabis strain at the Serra dispensary Feb. 7, 2019, in Portland. (Associated Press files)
A budtender shows a top cannabis strain at the Serra dispensary Feb. 7, 2019, in Portland. (Associated Press files) Photo Gallery

Medford, Ore. — The teen years of this century will be remembered as a turbulent time for the cannabis industry as it made great strides toward legalization while taking a few stumbles trying to shake off its bootleg past.

When voters legalized marijuana in 2014, it started a “Green Rush” that attracted get-rich-quick schemes along with a wild retail environment that resulted in a rapid proliferation of cannabis stores in the valley.

As speculative crops multiplied, the hemp industry saw a large shakeup in 2019, with four suicides, barn fires and mold that destroyed crops, and dozens of growers who just threw in the towel after they ran out of money.

Southern Oregon’s reputation for growing top-quality flower has helped put this area on the cannabis map. Actor Jim Belushi grows his own brand of marijuana at his farm near Eagle Point.

Medford Councilor Clay Bearnson, who works at the downtown Medford marijuana store Oregon Farmacy, has been an outspoken advocate for marijuana legalization, prodding city officials over the years into opening the door to marijuana retail sales in Medford.

“It was definitely a hard-fought battle,” he said.

Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler, an outspoken critic of marijuana legalization, first threatened a veto but ultimately signed off on an ordinance allowing the sale of medical marijuana in 2015, ending an 18-month moratorium on dispensaries.

Medford City Council debated allowing recreational sales but ultimately left it up to voters, who in November 2016 approved the sale of cannabis through licensed retail stores.

Medford was one of the last places to approve retail sales in the valley, but now has some two dozens stores in the city limits.

Looking back over the past decade, Bearnson said the biggest hit to the cannabis industry was an early change that stripped out a requirement that would have given Oregonians preferential treatment.

“The biggest travesty was to take out the residency requirement,” Bearnson said. “As a result, the people with the most money have the biggest say in Salem.”

On the federal side, he said, there are still problems with banks not letting cannabis businesses open accounts, and marijuana businesses can’t take the same tax write-offs as other businesses.

To pay Oregon taxes without a bank account, many businesses have to get money orders and send them to Salem, Bearnson said.

Changes in Oregon laws that Bearnson would like to see include allowing on-premises consumption of cannabis, including smoking lounges and at other events.

“This is so people don’t have to smoke in public or in their cars,” he said. “Some people can’t smoke in their apartment buildings or other areas, so this is a way they can find some respite.”

He said beer fairs allow consumption of alcohol, but marijuana fairs don’t allow sampling. “We should be treating it the same as alcohol,” he said.

Another change Bearnson wants is more medical-grade edibles with higher concentrations of THC, the active ingredient that produces the “high.”

Oregon allows packages to contain up to 50 milligrams of THC per package of edibles, while both California and Washington allow up to 100 milligrams a package.

Pot pioneers helped blaze a path to what has become Southern Oregon’s biggest agricultural crop, and an industry that now plays a significant role in the local economy.

Brie Malarkey was the first to open a “legal” medical marijuana store in Jackson County, Breeze Botanicals, on June 14, 2014, in Gold Hill, and then it became the first licensed recreational marijuana store in Oregon when she was granted the first retail license in the state in 2015. She now owns another store in Ashland, and her company puts out various products under the Sun God Medicinals label.

Last year, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission ceased issuing new marijuana permits, after the industry saw a glut of marijuana. The glut temporarily drove down prices and, some officials feared the oversupply would increase black market sales to states where marijuana is still illegal.

The Oregon Legislature formalized the moratorium with Senate Bill 218, which put a freeze on new producer licenses through Jan. 2, 2022.

When the federal government legalized hemp, cannabis’s genetic cousin, it opened the flood gates as investors around the country and the world poured money into the local economy.

Local officials initially fretted over legalization, but at the end of 2019, even the The Chamber of Medford/Jackson County threw its support behind cannabis when two cannabis companies became members.

One of the companies, Acreage Oregon, is part of Acreage Holdings, a company that is in the process of being bought by a large Canadian firm, Canopy Growth.

There have been a lot of milestones on the road to full legalization in this state.

Oregon was the first state to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in 1973, when Oregonians decided that those in possession of small amounts of cannabis faced only a fine.

Medical use of cannabis was legalized by Oregon voters in 1998.

In 2004, Oregon voters rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed retail sales of medical marijuana to patients.

In 2005, the Oregon Legislature passed a law allowing patients to possess up to 24 ounces and grow up to six mature plants. A grow site registry was created.

In 2012, Measure 80, a marijuana legalization effort, was defeated.

Cannabis is legal for anyone 21 or older to posses, but it’s legal to consume only at home or on private property. You can’t use recreational marijuana in public places. It’s illegal to take marijuana out of state, even to other states where it is legal. Driving under the influence of marijuana is also illegal.

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