Soaring up to 16 feet, a forest of healthy marijuana plants in the Applegate provides a glimpse of the bumper crop expected this season as growers gear up for legal sales of recreational pot Thursday.
“We doubled production,” says Blake Rogers, owner of Dharma Farms. “A lot of people upped their production.”
A dozen medical marijuana dispensaries in Jackson County and others throughout the state will begin selling recreational cannabis to anyone over the age of 21, including people from out of state or out of the country. All that's required is valid identification with birth date.
Marijuana became legal on July 1 after Oregonians approved Ballot Measure 91 last year. The state is allowing medical marijuana dispensaries to sell retail cannabis starting Oct. 1 while the Oregon Liquor Control Commission sets up rules that eventually will license stores throughout the state sometime next year.
Many dispensary owners believe there will be ample supply from growers to keep up with demand, with sales expected to jump by 30 percent or more. But a few dispensary owners worry there could be shortages, particularly before the marijuana harvest hits the shelves in a few weeks. Washington state experienced shortages when it legalized cannabis in 2012.
But once the harvest comes in, most dispensaries expect supplies to be plentiful, though that could depend on how many out-of-state visitors come to Oregon.
“I feel lucky to be a part of it at the age I am,” says Rogers, 34. “I think there is a huge market for cannabis tourism.”
Rogers says he’s improved his growing techniques to get the maximum yield from his plants while still maintaining an organic garden.
He has six workers tending the plants and another five involved in the extraction of various components of marijuana.
His plants grow in foot-deep, heavily composted soil in well-aerated greenhouses. The shallow root system doesn’t have to struggle for nutrients so all the energy goes into making leaves and flowers, he says. He uses redwood boards to contain the soil to avoid chemicals and preservatives that are in pressure-treated wood.
Special heaters have been installed under the soil to keep the roots warm in the colder months. Rogers says this gives him the opportunity to grow another crop during the winter months.
“We keep close track of our soil amendments, and we keep track of our mistakes,” Rogers says.
This year, growers were plagued with russet mites. Because Rogers is part of the Clean Green Certified program, he couldn’t use pesticides. Instead, he imported bugs that attack the mites but don’t damage the plants.
Since cannabis is still illegal under federal law, growers can’t receive an “organic” certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so they’ve turned to the third-party Clean Green Certified company located in Crescent City, Calif.
Rogers says he’s heard other growers have used pesticides, which could show up in mandatory lab testing required before cannabis can be sold in the dispensaries.
He expects to harvest his crop sometime in October, and his flowers will be sold at the Talent Health Club, which is the only Clean Green Certified dispensary south of Eugene.
Mitra Sticklen, general manager of Talent Health Club, says she is excited that the end of prohibition in marijuana in Oregon is finally here.
“It’s a whole new world,” she says. “Because we did pass the law last year, everyone cultivating cannabis had to prepare for the recreational market.”
Talent Health Center has created a separate counter for recreational sales and another for medical marijuana sales.
Sticklen says new display cases are expected to arrive shortly, and a different cash register will handle recreational cannabis. However, the same strains will be offered for both medical marijuana patients and recreational users.
“We don’t expect any shortages,” she says.
On Thursday, her store will be giving away samples to celebrate the first day of legal recreational sales.
With legalization, Sticklen says she thinks consumers will demand top-quality products that are free of pesticides and other chemicals.
She expects cannabis tourism will eventually flourish in the Rogue Valley, and visitors will be looking for local strains that show the “terroir” of the region. Terroir is a French word that refers to the soil, weather and other characteristics of a region that are imparted into the flavor of wine.
Sticklen says growers are somewhat less secretive now that the laws have changed, and she expects that some farms will hold tours and events in the near future. There is even talk of creating “Bud and Breakfast” retreats, she says.
She says the state is getting on board with legalization, with the Oregon Farm Bureau conducting classes for those who want to be cannabis cultivators. The workshops are from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 4 p.m. Oct. 15 at the Oregon Farm Bureau headquarters, 1320 Capitol St. N.E., Salem.
Some growers, such as Rogers, are cultivating a type of marijuana that is high in cannabidiol (CBD), which is touted as being helpful in controlling pain, inducing sleep and reducing anxiety. These strains also produce less of a high than other cannabis varieties.
Sticklen says some of the newer marijuana strains have particularly high levels of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient that produces the high. But she says it’s difficult to say whether the strains today will seem more potent to the average person who smoked pot 20 years ago or so.
“It’s hard to gauge,” she says. “Every individual is different.”
One of the more potent strains she offers is Pineapple Kush, grown by Jurassic Farms in Jackson County. For a good night’s sleep, Sticklen suggests OG Kush from local grower SpectrumRx. If you want a creative boost, Sticklen recommends Tangie from sofresh farms or Dutch Herer from Liontree Farms.
State Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, who championed the legalization of marijuana, says most dispensaries have operated in a professional manner, but he thinks the number of stores statewide may already be more than the market can bear.
“It was never our intent to have as many dispensaries as Starbucks coffee shops,” he says. There are almost 300 operating dispensaries in the state. “The next couple of years is going to produce a huge shakeout for the industry.”
During the legislative session, dispensary owners pleaded with Buckley and other legislators to allow them to sell recreational marijuana along with medical marijuana because some stores, particularly in the northern part of the state, were struggling to survive.
“People thought they were going to go out of business,” Buckley says.
Still, Buckley sees a lot of opportunity for cannabis tourism in the years ahead.
“It makes total sense for Oregon,” he says. “Colorado experienced a huge increase in tourism.”
Buckley says the amount of pot growing is readily apparent now that it is legal.
Even for the casual observer, various large-scale marijuana grow sites are clearly visible from many Jackson County roads. One large grow surrounded by hay bales and the tell-tale black tarp fencing can be seen next to Interstate 5 near Ashland.
A lot of that pot will be funneling into dispensaries, but Buckley and others think there still will be a black market for cannabis until people get used to the idea of buying in stores.
How big of an increase in pot sales after Oct. 1 is open for some debate.
“I would say we would have conservatively a 30 percent increase,” says David Savage, manager of Rogue River Herbal Pain Management Center.
He expects to see a greater influx of customers from other states.
“There won’t be any problem with supply at this time of the year,” he says.
To prepare for the increase, his dispensary will have separate doors for medical and recreational marijuana users as well as different cash registers.
Brie Malarkey, owner of Breeze Botanicals with locations in Ashland and Gold Hill, is worried there might be shortages in October until supplies are replenished after the harvest season.
She says that by the time the cannabis is harvested, cured, trimmed, tested and packaged, it will be November before this year’s crop hits the shelves.
Another issue is how many new customers the dispensaries will see in October.
“A lot of people are wondering what demand is going to be,” she says.
For medical marijuana patients, Malarkey says the concern is that a large number of recreational buyers could produce shortages. To ease their concerns, she is offering a special $89 an ounce variety for all her patients starting Monday.
Her stores will offer an express lane for repeat customers who know what type of cannabis product they want to buy.
On the first day of legal recreational sales, she will offer two different strains for $3 a gram to everyone.
She will add two hours a day when her Ashland and Gold Hill stores are open, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The Ashland store will open on Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. as well.
Malarkey says she doesn’t plan to separate the medical and recreational marijuana sales but will have a separate consultation room for medical marijuana patients. She says she doesn’t have enough room at her Gold Hill store.
Jasmine Cummings, who works at Kush Gardens in Shady Cove, says she’s confident she’ll have enough on hand for Oct. 1, since the cannabis she sells is grown indoors locally and isn't dependent on the season.
“We like to keep it local,” she says. “But we have a few different vendors higher up in the state.”
Noah Richardson, manager of Fireside Dispensary in Phoenix, says he, too, expects a 30 percent or more increase in business.
In preparation for Oct. 1, many dispensaries have increased their inventories to handle the demand. But the big unknown, he says, is how big the demand will be.
“That’s a good question,” Richardson says.