written by Amy Faust | photos by Cameron Zegers
On an October morning last fall, eager customers lined up outside stores such as Gorge Greenery in Hood River, Beaver Bowls in Corvallis and The Joint in Salem. When around 200 medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the state opened their doors to recreational users, thousands of adults streamed in, showed identification and bought cannabis legally for the first time. Lines were long, but as one customer outside Bloom Well in Bend told its owner, “I’ve waited for thirty-five years, I can wait another thirty-five minutes.” At the end of the day, sales exceeded $3 million statewide, and by the end of the week, Oregonians had bought more product than Colorado’s and Washington’s first weeks combined.
Not everyone in the state is excited about Measure 91, which legalized marijuana. In fact, thanks to a legislative compromise, counties who did not vote to support the legalization measure can—and are—opting out of allowing recreational dispensaries to open within their boundaries. In the remaining counties, brisk sales can be attributed to a new crop of customers who are either rediscovering the drug after years of abstaining or “coming out” after years of using it quietly to avoid controversy. “Not only are sales up about fourfold,” said Bloom Well’s owner Jeremy Kwit, “our clientele is more diverse than we ever anticipated— socioeconomically, ethnically, agewise and otherwise.”
For those interested in partaking, there are still limits to what you can purchase and where.
Currently, you can buy only from medical dispensaries, though hundreds of purely recreational storefronts will likely be opening later this year. For now, you can purchase only “flower,” or buds, which means no edibles, no topicals and no concentrates without a medical card. The variety of strains and the myriad ways to explore them have never been more diverse or legal.
The dispensary experience varies wildly, from the “head shop”-style dens that service old-school “stoners” to modernist spaces that look more like boutiques for trendy eyewear. Due to strict regulations, however, all share a few key characteristics. You will be greeted by a receptionist, remain in a separate waiting area until you’ve been signed in, and then be ushered into a space that, while drenched in the pungent smell of potent buds, does not accommodate touching or trying the product. You’ll be served by a “budtender” who will ask a few questions about your needs and interests and then help you navigate the astonishing variety of options with names such as “Grandaddy Purple,” “Dog Walker” and “Obama Kush.”
Unlike the product of old, today’s cannabis is hybridized and refined into many categories and subcategories with different properties and uses. Having trouble sleeping? Your budtender might suggest a strain with a high CBD content. (Short for Cannabidiol, CBD is a part of the plant that is purported to provide less of a “high” and more of a relaxing effect, making it popular with medical patients.) Want to giggle and have a good time at a dinner party? Perhaps you will be steered toward something with a higher THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) content, which is typically the source of the more psychedelic “high” associated with pot from the old days.
Another difference between ’70s pot and today’s cannabis is the potency. Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, who opposed Measure 91, wants to make it clear most marijuana in the ’70s had THC levels of about 2 percent, versus today’s strains that can hit levels upwards of 30 percent. “If you compare that to a pharmaceutical drug,” he said, “you’re talking about a [massive] increase in potency.” Marquis is not so concerned for the adults who smoke casually at home; he’s worried about the younger, inexperienced users. “When they get high, they go from zero to sixty.”
According to Jeremy Plumb, Willamette Week’s “Budtender of the Year” for 2015, it doesn’t have to be that way. His dispensary Farma, in Portland, takes cannabis categorization even farther into the realm of science, testing each strain for various levels of properties (including eight THC levels) and labeling them accordingly. Plumb is a passionate bio-nerd who throws around tongue-twisting terms—beta myrcene, sesquiterpenes, anti-anxiolytics—with ease and authority. Like many cannabis entrepreneurs and activists, he is driven by the desire to provide more targeted benefits to his medical patients, and to help adults enjoy a more refined recreational experience. “We want you as a patient and as a consumer to be able to intentionally select different effects,” said Plumb, “and to become very sophisticated as to which compounds, which doses and which delivery systems work for you.”
This being Oregon, the cannabis industry here is bullish on many of the same qualities promoted in our renowned food and wine cultures: locally grown, pesticide-free, obsessively sourced. While cannabis cannot be labeled as organic (the FDA does not recognize it as a crop), a certification process called “clean green” serves the same purpose. There’s even “veganically” grown cannabis that uses no animal products as fertilizer. It’s not hard to imagine the role of cannabis evolving to a point where connoisseurs serve up rare strains at dinner parties and expound on the virtues of “sungrown” versus indoor crops.
While it’s now perfectly legal to show up at your book club meeting bearing weed instead of a bottle of wine, many regular users acknowledge that they still feel a stigma attached to the whole culture. “Everyone knows somebody who used cannabis and turned out to be a loser,” said Kwit. “Correlation is not causation.” Anne Marie Luthro is a professional shopper insights consultant, a recreational user and an advocate for the “normalization” of cannabis. “For most people, ‘pot’ is still a four-letterword, but ‘pill’ is not.”
But as “Prohibition era” shame and secrecy wane, local entrepreneurs are creating new ways for the curious to re-enter the market. Josh Jardine Taylor is a “cannabis concierge” who sets up visiting bands with vaporizers and “swag bags” of local product that await them backstage. (Snoop Dogg appreciated his green gift.) Taylor now focuses increasingly on “responsibly integrating cannabis into people’s lives.” His “Cannabis 101” events, which are held in homes and businesses, help novices navigate the often overwhelming new culture and terminology, and teach them to ingest without smoking by vaporizing, which allows for more measured intake. “For people who haven’t smoked since the ’60s or ’80s, this is radically different than taking a monster bong hit, getting extremely high and having the house reek like weed,” said Taylor. Many of his customers are what he calls “AARP age” people who are “just tickled that they can finally talk about it. Everyone has questions.”
This year, Taylor is planning a series of events called “Puff, Puff, Pour,” in which various cannabis strains will be paired with local spirits or beers for maximum enjoyment. Farm-to-table dinners incorporating food pairings are also on the horizon, as well as “viper vacations.” (Picture a group of out-of-towners flying in, being chauffeured around the state to the finest wineries, learning all about “terroir” and other terminology from growers, even helping with a harvest at a venerable third-generation Southern Oregon farm. Now replace wine with cannabis.) “The way we are doing things here in Oregon is based much more on the craft beer and wine model than the large-scale, hydroponic, chemical- soaked brands you might find elsewhere,” said Taylor.
In areas of Southern Oregon where cannabis farming dates decades back into the black market days, legalization has brought on a mixed bag of changes. As growers transition into the legal market, their product must pass the pesticide-level tests required for sale in a dispensary. Courtney Zehring of Tokie Farms in Jackson County says many old-school growers who used to think she was an “idiot” for farming so sustainably are now asking for advice. “Testing isn’t going anywhere,” she said. “If you want to keep playing, you need to transition.” According to Zehring, the big challenges facing rural growers now are navigating the new county-generated regulations, some of which “feel punitive,” and fending off the big investors who want to come in, snap up land and “turn us all into sharecroppers.” For now, she is excited about “having more support, more resources and more open communication.”
The regulations that have arrived with Oregon’s “green rush” have given birth to a host of other cannabis-related businesses as well. CannaGuard is a company specializing in security for grow operations, since state law requires that their crops, many of which are indoors and in urban areas, be guarded with a high level of surveillance equipment. Marijuana Business Daily lists a dozen labs statewide that perform the mandatory tests on pesticide and THC/CBD levels, which must be included on all product labeling. Realtors such as Expanse Commercial have carved out a niche finding retail space for dispensaries, whose numbers will have increased statewide by around 300 before the end of the year. (There are currently three times more cannabis shops in Portland than liquor stores.)
The next few years will be crucial in the future of Oregon’s recreational marijuana program. Until the dust settles on huge issues such as regulation, taxation, zoning and product accessibility, it’s not yet clear whether the hundreds of new dispensaries and the industry that is growing up around them will thrive or wither. As a grower of medical marijuana in Montana ten years ago, Zehring watched “over-regulation annihilate a program that had been a model for other states.” If current tax laws hold up, profit margins will remain relatively slim at dispensaries, reducing the flood of new businesses to a trickle. But for now most entrepreneurs seem optimistic about this opportunity to do cannabis the Oregon way. “Oregon has the best craftspeople, the most diverse genotypes, and an entire cohesive culture that is distinct and different,” said Plumb. “We are curators. We represent the best ethics. This is what we do.”
All equipment, plants and flowers were curated by Joshua Taylor with oregoncannabisconcierge.com. Thanks also to Steve Bailey, Green Bodhi, Chalice Farms, 7 Pints Oregon, Hifi Farms and Eco Firma Farms for loaning out their cannabis for our photo shoot.