Pot store manager sees 'green rush'
The manager of a Beaverton cannabis store says many people — maybe too many — seek to cash in as producers and retailers in a growing industry spurred by Oregon's legalization of marijuana for recreational use in 2014.
"There's a green rush. A lot of people are coming in and pouring a lot of money into it, and there is definitely an oversupply right now," says Jami Arbon, manager of Green Mart.
But under the economic laws of supply and demand, Arbon added, not all of the would-be growers and sellers are likely to remain.
During a talk Monday (Feb. 19) at the Washington County Public Affairs Forum, Arbon said those who succeed will combine their knowledge of cannabis — and their customers — with entrepreneurial skills.
Arbon hopes to be one of them.
She is from Oregon, but she spent time elsewhere before returning after the 2014 vote. She and Terry Wilson opened Green Mart, originally a medical marijuana dispensary, at 12745 S.W. Walker Rd. on Dec. 1, 2015.
"We felt it was a good omen when we did $420 in sales on our first day with no sign, no windows, nothing on the walls, just a glass case with a few jars in it," she said.
The term "420" is slang for marijuana use.
A state law implementing the 2014 ballot measure allowed medical dispensaries, regulated by the Oregon Health Authority, to sell marijuana for recreational use.
Slightly more than a year later, when the Oregon Liquor Control Commission took over regulating sales for recreational use, Green Mart was among the first 50 in Oregon to obtain a state retailer license.
"When we opened our doors, we knew we were there to serve both the medical and recreational markets," Arbon said.
She said customers range from those who just turned 21 — the legal age for someone to purchase and use the drug — to older cancer patients seeking alternatives to costly pain medications with undesirable side effects.
"What has been amazing to discover is the sheer diversity every day in our store," she said. "Every walk of life, every political affiliation, every color, every age … is being impacted by cannabis."
Arbon said a perception persists that marijuana is used only by a certain segment of society dating back to the 1960s.
"The stoners and hippies of the world are stereotypes," she said. "But the reality of it is that a lot of people are choosing this (cannabis use) as a safer choice in their off-time."
Compared to illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine — and legal ones such as alcohol and tobacco — Arbon said marijuana is far less deadly, although any drug can be abused.
"More often than not, cannabis users are doing so in the privacy of their own homes and taking naps after use," she said. "Domestic violence and belligerence often associated with alcohol are not present with cannabis."
State of cannabis
Oregon is one of eight states where recreational use of marijuana is legal — it was the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts back in 1973 — and one of 30 states with broad laws for medical use. But marijuana remains illegal under a federal law that dates back to 1937.
Oregon's state tax on cannabis sales is 17 percent, and counties and cities can add 3 percent, for a total of 20 percent. Local taxes began about a year ago.
Sales are estimated to generate about $100 million or more annually in taxes. According to Oregon Department of Revenue totals, state taxes totaled $20.7 million for the five months ending in mid-2016, and $70.3 million for the budget year ending in mid-2017.
State taxes are distributed to schools, state police, public health and local governments according to a formula, although counties and cities that ban retail sales do not share in the proceeds. (Gaston, Sherwood and Wilsonville are among them.)
According to OLCC figures — current as of Feb. 9 for licenses, Feb. 15 for applications — Washington County has 26 licensed retailers and 61 licensed producers; 37 pending retailer applicants and 131 pending producer applicants.
For comparison, Multnomah County has 159 licensed retailers, Clackamas County 16.
Arbon said her professional background is in product promotion, and at the time of Oregon's 2014 vote, she was working in North Carolina, where marijuana remains illegal.
During her time in California, she studied for 14 weeks at Oaksterdam University in Oakland, Calif., which bills itself as a training institute in all aspects of the emerging cannabis industry. California was the first state to legalize medical use back in 1996; Oregon followed suit in 1998.
"Doing it for fun changed my life," she said. "Oregon had embraced something I was passionate about."
Major issues in marijuana
During a question-and-answer session after her talk, Jami Arbon responded to audience comments at the Washington County Public Affairs Forum on several issues involving the drug:
• Driving under the influence, which remains illegal, although there is no test for marijuana comparable to the breath or blood tests used to detect alcohol impairment. Police officers can train as drug recognition experts. Urine tests detect whether someone has used marijuana in the past, but not necessarily under the influence.
"We do not support being inebriated behind the wheel in any sense, including cannabis," Arbon said, but expects that arrests for marijuana-impaired driving are likely to rise.
• Access by minors, which in a recent Oregon Liquor Control Commission operation turned up a 57 percent failure rate by Portland area retailers (Green Mart was not part of it) to check age identification. Retailers in other areas showed better compliance.
Arbon said some stores lack physical separation between where IDs are checked and retail space.
"You can't just walk in and see cannabis products at our store,"
she said. "But every retailer … has to do a better job at doing our part in ensuring that cannabis does not get into the hands of minors."
• Land use conflicts. Oregon law bars retail sales 1,000 feet from schools, and local governments can set regulations for control of lighting, noise and odors from producers and processors. Washington County adopted such rules in 2015.
"Most of us in the industry are trying to do the right thing and be a good community and business member," Arbon said.
• Lack of access to banking services, which forces retailers to resort to cash transactions, and denial under federal law to deduct operating expenses. Arbon said U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer and others in Oregon's congressional delegation have sponsored several measures she hopes will gain traction as more states legalize marijuana for medical or recreational use.
• An oversupply of marijuana from Oregon producers that outpaces in-state consumption. Although three neighboring states have now legalized marijuana for recreational use, cannabis cannot be shipped across state lines — and some of it is finding its way to Idaho, which has not legalized it.
Arbon acknowledged that oversupply has resulted in big price drops, which benefit consumers.
She did say that some producers will turn to processors, which can make oils and edibles that have a longer shelf life than unprocessed cannabis.
• Edibles, which have greater potency in terms of the psychoactive chemical known as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — and because ingestion has a delayed effect, by up to two hours.
Arbon said Oregon rules limit the amount of THC in edibles, require clear labeling of servings and childproof packaging. But she said the best advice for novice users is to consult experienced retail workers — and not overdo it.
— Peter Wong