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A growth industry?

New medical marijuana nonprofit in Tigard and clinic in Aloha spotlight a sprouting, uncertain business
by: Jaime Valdez, Dan DeGroodt opened the MedMar Clinic in Aloha in February.

It's been 12 years since medical marijuana was legalized in Oregon, but just recently, new businesses based around the industry have been sprouting up in Washington County.

In Tigard, a new nonprofit business, The Human Collective, opened its doors April 1 at 11509 S.W. Pacific Highway. According to owner Sarah Bennett, 33, the organization will provide a varity of services and support to medical marijuana patients, including a new, untested system for connecting patients looking for marijuana with experienced growers.

Bennett estimates that there are more than 1,800 Oregon Medical Marijuana Program cardholders in the Washington County area, and one of the main issues they encounter is gaining quick, legal access to their cannabis. Oregon law stipulates that cardholders can grow their own, or appoint someone to grow for them. However, marijuana cannot be sold for a profit - only the actual agricultural costs, like electricity, can be recovered.

Bennett says that the byzantine laws surrounding medical marijuana often drive legitimate patients to the black market, and to situations where they can be ripped off. What the Human Collective offers for a $365-a-year membership fee, besides classes, massages and other services, Bennett says, is an organized system for the legal transfer of marijuana between cardholders.

It works something like this: The Human Collective, which only employs legal cardholders, meets with growers and reimburses them for an amount of marijuana. Seperately, members of the collective put money into a 'MedExpress' account, which can be transferred later to the collective to reimburse them for the cost of cannabis.

Bennett says that she's never heard of another set-up quite like this, but is sure it's in compliance with the law.

Right now, the collective only has one member, but Bennett envisions that in a few months, her operation will have a wide selection of marijuana for members to choose from, as well as growing classes and massage therapy available.

'I've just heard story after story of challenges, people in program saying that it's failing and doesn't work,' Bennett says. 'The laws are to allow us, as cardholders, a lot of privileges, so I was just trying to put something together so that cardholders can get their medicine in a timely manner.'

Bennett, who lives in Southwest Portland, says she believes in the 'healing properties of medical marijuana,' and as a grower herself, thought it was time to make the business around the program more legitimate. She said that she decided to pursue it in October, when a memo from the United States Department of Justice outlined new guidelines that de-emphasized the pursuit of patients who are in compliance with state laws, even though medical marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.

Bennett said that all of her planning around the legality of medical marijuana has renewed her interest in the law, and she plans to go back to school and earn a law degree.

Another new business in Washington County is the MedMar Clinic in Aloha - you can get a hold of them at 503-882-WEED - which opened its doors in a non-descript office building at 20595 S.W. Tualatin Valley Highway in February.

Dan DeGroodt, 33, decided to open the business after getting his medical marijuana card for back pain in January. After 13 years as a painter, Dan was laid off last year and looking for work. While having a discussion with his doctor, she told him that there weren't any options for medical marijuana patients looking for help in Washington County. He decided to do something about it.

'She said that if something was put together, she'd come over and volunteer,' DeGroodt said. 'About a month later we opened up.'

For a fee of about $200, the MedMar Clinic's staff (right now just DeGroodt and one other person) will review a patient's medical records and help shepherd them through the process of obtaining a card under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. The clinic also sells an array of pipes, bongs and other marijuana-consumption tools on the site. The clinic is not a dispensary - Oregon law doesn't allow those - and DeGroodt doesn't have marijuana on site.

So far, business has been slow, DeGroodt said, though they've seen a number of patients and expect the number to grow as word about the new business gets out. DeGroodt recently printed 10,000 copies of a small newspaper about the medical marijuana community, 'The Rollin' Stoned,' which he will distribute throughout the area. He said that he hopes to create more jobs once the business is established.

Bennett at the Human Collective agreed. Both business owners said it can be hard for medical marijuana patients to get jobs because of mandatory drug tests.

'During this recession, while everybody's laid off, I have the opportunity to create something that could be pay checks for people,' DeGroodt said.

A growing business?

While The Human Collective and DeGroodt's new clinic are still in their infancy, other medical-marijuana businesses have been booming throughout the state.

Marijuana advocates say there are signs that as people have become accustomed to legal medical marijuana, more have found they can benefit from it.

While nobody keeps an exact count (no state agency is required to), state officials estimate there are about 15 medical marijuana clinics statewide. The THCF clinic, in Portland, is by far the largest, servicing about half the state's medical marijuana clinic patients, according to owner Paul Stanford.

Stanford is a hard-core marijuana activist, and the force behind a looming ballot measure to legalize marijuana in Oregon. He's also at the nexus of the burgeoning marijuana business in Oregon.

Stanford owns and runs six medical marijuana clinics (and 37 traveling clinics) in nine states, with his headquarters in Portland. He says his clinics have approved more than 110,000 people for medical marijuana cards. Most have paid $150 to $200 for their clinic visits. That computes to nearly $20 million in revenue.

In an attempt to keep money out of the mix, Oregon law says that medical marijuana cannot be sold. Nevertheless, money is very much a part of the medical marijuana landscape. Stanford says the dozens of horticultural shops that have sprung up to sell supplies such as indoor grow lights to marijuana growers represent a larger business right now than the clinics.

Supporters of ballot measures that would change Oregon's medical marijuana laws say money - tax money - is one of their major selling points.

The measure most likely to make it on to the November ballot would establish nonprofit dispensaries throughout the state to sell marijuana to cardholders.

Independent marijuana growers would be licensed by the state to provide the cannabis, with the idea that competition among the growers would lower the price of the marijuana sold to the stores, and eventually to the public. Dispensaries and growers would pay ten percent of their gross sales to the state, and provide discounted marijuana for low-income cardholders.

John Sajo, director of nonprofit marijuana advocacy organization Voter Power, helped draft the initiative, and he projects that in the first year after passage, dispensaries and growers could be sending between $10 million and $40 million dollars back to the state, which would have to use some of that money to oversee the growers and stores.

Sajo says based on the growth rate in the number of medical marijuana users - and in recent years those numbers have been skyrocketing - as much as a billion dollars could make its way into state coffers over 10 years.

Stanford's initiative, to which he has pledged $150,000 of his own money to help pay signature gatherers, is considered more of a long shot at this point to make it on the November ballot.

It would make marijuana legal and allow its sale through state-run stores modeled after liquor stores. It, too, would give the state the power to license growers to feed the machine.

Stanford projects that if his measure passes the state would bring in about $150 million in additional tax revenues a year, and save an additional $75 million in prison, court and police costs now spent on pursing marijuana-related crimes.

But the prospect of marijuana dispensaries and legalization has some looking south, to California, where poor and in some cases nonexistent oversight of dispensaries has led to what everyone on the marijuana scene agrees is a mess.

In Los Angeles alone, until recent federal intervention, an estimated 1,000 marijuana dispensaries had been operating in open competition with each other, with sidewalk hawkers beckoning pedestrians to come inside for quick approval by a doctor, and an afternoon toke. Passersby are told if they just mention they have trouble sleeping, they can get authorization.

Proponents say that won't happen in Oregon, should the measure pass. The state health department would have broad powers to monitor and regulate the growers and the dispensaries. But Clatsop County district attorney Josh Marquis, for one, still doesn't like the idea.

'I don't have a high degree of confidence that the state bureaucracy will do that,' he says.