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Preview of pot legalization plays out across Oregon border

To get a sense of how legal marijuana might work in Oregon, curious voters can turn to the budding pot industry in the city of Vancouver, Wash., just over the border from Portland.

“The sky has not fallen since the legalization of marijuana,” said Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt.

Voters in Oregon will get a chance to either follow or shun Washington’s lead on Nov. 4 when they decide on Ballot Measure 91, which would make recreational marijuana legal for those 21 and older.

In Vancouver, the city approved two pot shops over the summer. The mayor cut the ribbon before a crowd of onlookers for the opening of Main Street Marijuana on July 9.

“It was a big event,” Leavitt said. “It was the most energized grand opening of any business that I have been to in the five years I’ve been in office.”

The city is exploring the idea of pot lounges, where customers and tourists could relax and smoke a joint inside a store. 

Vancouver is the only city in Clark County, Wash., to allow sales of pot. Surrounding communities have staked out their opposition to cannabis.

A similar reaction has played out in Jackson County, as local cities have taken different positions on medical marijuana dispensaries over the past two years, leading to court battles and raids by law enforcement. In Medford, medical marijuana dispensaries that allowed pot smoking for patients in back rooms were shut down, and the council banned the dispensaries permanently.

Some Jackson County residents have complained about the overpowering smell of marijuana from legal grow sites. In many areas, the smell of ripening marijuana perfumes the air, which is one of the reasons why it is called “skunk weed.”

“We get complaints all the time at City Hall about people growing it in their backyards,” said Medford City Councilor Daniel Bunn. “We’re the people on the front lines dealing with these neighborhood issues. It has left a bad taste in people’s mouths.”

The road to legalization in Colorado and Washington hasn’t always been an easy one, though it has attracted tourists to those states. In Colorado, people have been sickened by consuming large quantities of marijuana-laden goodies, including New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who wrote about her bad experience after snacking on a candy bar infused with pot.

Dowd’s scathing account of her experience also mentioned other instances of children consuming marijuana products or of selling products they took from their parents.

Some law enforcement officers in Colorado and neighboring states have reported an increase in stoned drivers, while other cops have reported no increase, according to various news reports in the state.

Some cities in Southern Oregon have joined Medford in saying "no" to medical marijuana dispensaries and are wary of legalization efforts. Others, such as Ashland, Talent, Gold Hill and Central Point, have placed taxes on the books. Medford is considering a tax on both medical cannabis and recreational marijuana, if it becomes legal.

Leavitt said Washington residents expressed similar concerns about the potential pitfalls of pot.

“It’s really been much ado about nothing,” he said.

Merchants surrounding the two pot shops are generally pleased with their new neighbors and have noticed an increase in business, he said.

The biggest problem has been the price of marijuana, which has jumped since it was legalized and prompted an outcry from customers. Leavitt said local pot shops have been working to get a cheaper supply of cannabis, and supplies have increased, which has helped ease prices.

Leavitt, whose city has qualified for six pot shops under a state lottery, said he’s not a current user of marijuana. He’s tried it three or four times in the past and may try it in the future, he said.

“I’ve been to Amsterdam,” he said. One new pot shop in Vancouver is called New Vansterdam, a play on the words Amsterdam and Vancouver.

Kim Kapp, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Police Department, said, “The reality is for law enforcement that it didn’t change a lot for us.”

She said the city had problems with impaired driving because of alcohol and illegal drugs, and they continue to be a concern.

“I haven’t heard anecdotally or statistically that there has been any increase,” Kapp said. “The only thing that has really changed for law enforcement is that it has decriminalized marijuana for a small amount.”

In addition, police haven’t had any problems with the two pot shops, Kapp said.

Karen McMillen, owner of Vancouver Pizza Co., said she’s had an increase in business since Main Street Marijuana opened a few doors down.

“We haven’t had any issues,” she said. “You do have an idea when they (customers) have been using it.”

McMillen, who has run the pizza parlor for 14 of the 17 years it’s been open, said she hopes the pot shop is successful, although she and her staff are a little more aware of how much alcohol they serve to customers who might have smoked, which could increase their impairment, she said.

“It’s a new area that we are treading ground on that we need to be aware of,” she said.

Washington’s experience legalizing marijuana would likely influence the way Oregon rolls out its own program if Measure 91 passes.

The Washington Liquor Control Board regulates recreational marijuana and has created rules about packaging. Likewise, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission would regulate and draft rules for marijuana and related products and would likely require careful labeling to avoid the overconsumption problems associated with edibles in Colorado.

If Measure 91 is approved, pot would be legal for recreational use on July 1, 2015.

The measure would set a tax rate of $35 an ounce. The state would collect the tax. After administrative costs, 35 percent of the tax revenues would go to state and local police departments. Another 25 percent would go to drug treatment and mental health programs. The remaining 40 percent would go to schools.

Councilor Bunn said some of the campaign ads promising more money for schools and police are disingenuous. He said tax revenue will be swallowed up by administrative costs, with very little trickling down to local communities.

Bunn said he’s not surprised that legalizing marijuana in Vancouver has so far not produced any serious problems.

“Of course the sky isn’t falling since Washington legalized it,” he said. “I’m most concerned about long-term problems. What happens 10 to 15 years down the road.”

The state of Oregon created a flawed medical marijuana program and hasn’t given local cities the tools to properly address the problems, he said.

Bunn also criticized the federal government for continuing to classify marijuana in the same category as heroin and LSD, a designation that has effectively blocked clinical studies of the drug.

“We should have 30 years of data on this,” he said.

Without scientific data, Bunn said voters can’t form an educated opinion about marijuana.

Bunn said marijuana is unpopular in his southeast Medford ward, so he will pay particular attention to how Medford votes for Ballot Measure 91.

Bunn said he will vote “no” on the ballot measure and predicts most residents in his southeast Medford ward will also vote “no.”

"I would rather Oregon wait a few years to see how it plays out in Washington and Colorado," he said.

Polls have shown the election in Oregon could be close. Most have given the edge toward legalization.

“I think we have a really good shot at winning,” said Peter Zuckerman, spokesman for New Approach Oregon, sponsor of Measure 91. “But we’re not taking anything for granted.”

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.

Illustration by Paul Bunch
Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt cuts the ribbon at Main Street Marijuana on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. (Zachary Kaufman/The Columbian)