Marijuana: It’s legal! On day one, Bend is the exception for Central and Eastern Oregon

Oregon woke up to the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales this morning, but for well over half the state, nothing had changed.

Of the 286 medical marijuana dispensaries licensed with the Oregon Health Authority, 30 are located east of the Cascades — and 16 of those are in Bend.

Fifteen of those 16 dispensaries have been given the green light to begin selling recreational marijuana to anyone 21 or older starting today, while just six of the remaining Central and Eastern Oregon dispensaries will be selling to the public — three in Hood River and three in Madras.

While the Oregon Liquor Control Commission is working to set up a framework for retail marijuana sales to be implemented in January, for now, these medical dispensaries are the only way for Oregonians to legally purchase marijuana.

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Just as roadside signs alert drivers of their last opportunity to fill their gas tanks before a long journey, Bend is the last stop for legal marijuana for anyone heading east or south.

Long a regional destination for shopping and other services not available in more lightly populated areas, might Bend come to serve a similar role as the marijuana trade moves into the mainstream?

Bend dispensary owners Jeremy Kwit of Bloom Well and Aviv Hadar of Oregrown both said they’ve been attracting medical marijuana customers from far-flung corners of the state since they opened.

Kwit said he has many out-of-town medical customers who treat their trips to Bend to pick up marijuana products as mini-vacations, shopping at local stores and visiting local restaurants before returning home.

Establishments in less-populated parts of the state don’t always have the customer base to justify keeping a wide range of marijuana products in stock, Kwit said.

“Our inventory is broad and deep in every category, from flowers or buds to tinctures, topicals and a variety of edibles,” he said. “So it could just be they’re seeking a broader product range, so it’s worth their time to go to a community like Bend.”

Hadar said just as Bend has a disproportionately large number of restaurants and breweries compared with other cities its size, so it is with marijuana dispensaries. The city’s reliance on tourism and its position as the largest population center east of the Cascades means local dispensaries are effectively serving many more people than live in Bend, he said.

“We definitely believe Bend in particular is a recreational hub of cannabis for the state, if not the country,” Hadar said, adding that the city is uniquely positioned as closer to California than any other community with a large concentration of legal marijuana outlets.

Bend Mayor Jim Clinton said the city’s light touch leading up to full legalization has been more informed by its experience with medical marijuana than any effort to capture business from elsewhere in the state.

Although there are certainly local residents who disapprove of Bend’s many dispensaries, Clinton said dispensaries have generated far fewer problems for the city than the alcohol industry, and councilors saw no compelling reason to take a hard line against legal marijuana.

Clinton said his first exposure to marijuana came as a college student and grad student during the Vietnam War era, and his sense then as now is that the law has little effect on marijuana usage.

“Even though it was not of interest to me — I can’t stand altered states of consciousness, induced by any means — my impression, without having strong evidence, was the percentage of people that are into marijuana is not that different, legal or illegal. The fact is people who want to use it have been using it illegally, and now they’ll be using it legally.”

Mike McCabe, who along with his fellow members of the Crook County Court voted to impose a ban on marijuana cultivation, processing and sales earlier this year, said he’s not too concerned about losing out on revenue generated from the legal marijuana trade. The Crook County ban does not apply within the city of Prineville — Prineville has one dispensary, which is not opting to start selling recreational pot to the public today.

“My position was, when almost 60 percent of your constituents say, ‘We don’t want it,’ that’s a pretty good mandate that says, ‘Listen to us, this is what the vote was, do something about it,’” he said.

Fifty-nine percent of Crook County voters voted against Measure 91 last November, the statewide measure that began the process of making recreational marijuana legal in Oregon for anyone 21 or older.

Earlier this summer, the Oregon Legislature passed a measure allowing counties where at least 55 percent voted no on Measure 91 to bar marijuana cultivation, processing and sales.

McCabe said it would have been a tougher decision had Crook County voters been more narrowly divided on Measure 91 . Estimates suggested Crook County would collect around $4,500 a year from the marijuana tax-sharing arrangement set up by the state, he said, an amount that McCabe said could easily be consumed by increased demand for drug rehabilitation or law enforcement.

McCabe said he suspects medical marijuana cardholders have been taking their business to Bend, and that recreational buyers will do the same starting today. He said he’ll be watching what happens elsewhere in the state as retail sales begin and would be willing to reverse course if Crook County residents warm to the idea.

Clinton said he suspects Bend’s status as an oasis of legal marijuana surrounded by less marijuana-friendly counties and cities won’t last long.

“I guess I would predict that if the whole thing turns out to be in the ‘no big deal’ category, they will subsequently change their minds,” Clinton said. “But that’s just a guess.”

Hadar said he thinks it could take several years before opposition to legalized marijuana subsides in more rural parts of the state.

“Let’s say a place like John Day takes it to a general election, and it loses. Then what? It’s never going to happen there, I don’t see it happening there with how conservative they are. But, so be it — they’re missing out on the tax revenue.”

Kwit said he’s hopeful communities and counties that have tried to put the brakes on legalization will come around.

“Whether you like it or not, it’s here, and if you don’t embrace it you only perpetuate the black market and all the consequences of that,” he said.

Under the law, approved by Oregon voters in November 2014, adults 21 or older have been permitted to carry up to 1 ounce of marijuana in public or in their vehicle and keep up to 8 ounces at home since July 1.

Starting today, dispensaries selling to the public are permitted to sell up to a quarter-ounce to each customer per day, although there is no mechanism to prohibit a shopper from making purchases from multiple dispensaries in a single day.

Also as of today, dispensaries may sell up to four immature marijuana plants to members of the public and an unlimited quantity of seeds. However, marijuana-infused candies and other edibles and marijuana concentrates that can be smoked or vaporized will not be available to the general public until next year.

Sales through dispensaries are currently tax-free. In January, the state will implement a 25 percent tax, collected at the retail level.