These days you can’t roll too far in Portland, Oregon, without stumbling upon a marijuana dispensary. Medical marijuana has been legal in Oregon since 1998, but since the voters of Oregon overwhelmingly voted to legalize recreational marijuana in November 2014, the industry has caught fire faster than a perfectly rolled joint. With a whopping 167 dispensaries within the city limits, the green cross identifying the businesses has become one of the city’s most ubiquitous signs. With literally thousands of people applying for licenses to sell recreational marijuana statewide, there are millions of dollars pouring into the industry, and also into the state’s coffers — the state collected $3.48 million in taxes in January 2016 alone, far surpassing its wildest estimates. It is easier than ever before to get marijuana in Oregon.

So you can imagine Jeremy John Robbins’ surprise when he received a certified letter from the owner of the farm that had grown his medical marijuana, informing him that he would no longer be able to grow for him. The grower had decided to focus on the burgeoning recreational market and had to declare that he would no longer grow medicinal marijuana. Robbins, 40, has used medical marijuana since 2001 to reduce his spasms, help his neurological pain and cope with PTSD since he was paralyzed in 1999. He swears by the benefits and has become a staunch and well informed advocate for making cannabis more available to the public. Still, he was caught off guard by the letter. “I didn’t see it coming,” he said. “I thought legalization would increase access, and it has, but that has come with regulations and a lot of uncertainty.”

For treating neurological pain, Jeremy John Robbins says nothing is better than medical marijuana.

For treating neurological pain, Jeremy John Robbins says nothing is better than medical marijuana. Photo by Monique Chevalier.

Oregon is one of only four states to have legalized recreational marijuana, but 25 states have legalized some sort of medical marijuana, including 10 in the last five years. As more and more states evaluate legalizing marijuana, eyes are on Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Alaska to see how legalization plays out and how medical and recreational programs work, or don’t work, side by side.

“I think a lot of people take it for granted that marijuana is just going to be there, but unfortunately I think that a lot of medicinal users are going to be in for a really rude awakening,” says Charley Flynn, a Portland grower.

For Robbins, and some other long time medicinal users, legalization has actually complicated his ability to procure the medicine they need. Robbins is one of thousands in Oregon with a medical marijuana card. Cardholders are allowed to have up to 24 ounces of usable marijuana. Many people simply buy their medicine tax-free at one of Oregon’s many dispensaries, but some take advantage of the law’s provision allowing cardholders to have six plants. Cardholders can register to grow for themselves, but growing medical quality product can be expensive and difficult. For some, like Robbins, who lives in public housing, it is not an option.  Instead, he had an agreement with his registered grower where the grower would provide him an ounce a month from his six plants. With an ounce selling for anywhere from $200-$300 at a dispensary, depending on the strain, the deal saved Robbins significant money each month and allowed the grower to recoup some of the costs of growing by selling excess product to dispensaries. When he found out his grower was moving to the recreational market, Robbins was forced to find a new grower. He has, but has yet to receive any medicine as the grower deals with startup issues. That means Robbins has to pay market prices for his medicine on his already tight budget.

Like many medical users, Robbins rarely ingests his allotment via smoking. He has found the most benefit from concentrates, applying a small drop under the tongue. That too was thrown into jeopardy earlier this year when the state health authority’s draft regulations made the manufacture or possession of concentrates a Class B felony. Revisions now allow concentrate manufacturers or users to apply for a permit, but the application costs $4,000, again too steep for many.

Those changes are part of the state health authority’s attempt to rein in an industry that has gone largely unregulated since its inception. The majority of the regulations are focused on health and safety issues, like ensuring safe dosages and uniform quality, but they extend to how grow sites are managed and issues like security and water use.

Troy Moore has been involved with the Oregon marijuana scene’s rapid growth from the beginning. He started the first state-licensed medical dispensary, Oregon’s Finest, in 2012, and is about to open his third store. He also co-owns Ideal Farms, a grow farm in a nondescript building in downtown Portland that grows medicinal marijuana for a number of medicinal users. That will change later this year or early next year once Moore applies for a recreational growing permit and ceases to grow medical cannabis. “They’re forcing a lot of growers to make a decision to be recreational or medical,” says Moore, citing the high cost of mandated security equipment and other regulations. “It’s tough to make money in the medical market anyway, and these are probably costs most small medical growers cannot afford.”

The Lure of Recreational Growing
In Oregon, the decision to focus on the recreational market instead of the medical market makes obvious business sense. Medical growers are limited to growing for four cardholders, with each cardholder entitled to six plants. Even with multiple growers working at the same registered grow site, a frowned-upon practice known as card stacking, growers’ profits were limited. Recreational licenses are divided into two tiers for indoor and outdoor production. Indoors, a Tier I license allows for up to 5,000 square feet of canopy, while a Tier II allows for 5,001-10,000 square feet. Outdoors, Tier I allows for up to 20,000 square feet and Tier II allows for 20,001-40,000 square feet. That’s up to about one acre of outdoor ground, a lot more space and a lot more potential revenue.

“I feel really disappointed in the direction that things are going,” says Flynn, who grows for Moore’s Ideal Farms. “I think that a lot of the voters were duped by legislators saying they weren’t going to touch medical, but by every indication, the medical system is probably going to get dismantled to the point where it’s going to be ineffective or force people into the recreational.”

Moore isn’t as pessimistic, but he does profess to be unsure of how medical and recreational marijuana will coexist. “They’re going to try to coexist in the same building, which is hopeful, but they keep changing the rules all the time, so it’s hard to predict.”

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that legalization has brought a lot of new users into the fold, many of whom now seem more open to exploring marijuana’s medicinal benefits. “More and more people that have genuine medical issues are looking to it as relief for those medical issues because the stigma around it is not what it was,” says Moore. “Are they people that would have joined the medical system? No, but suddenly they are on board and find relief and are like, ‘Wow.’”

A visit to one of Oregon’s Finest dispensaries can be equally eye opening. After showing your ID, visitors enter a secure area that is both comfortable and tasteful, where they can see and learn about all of the different strains and different delivery methods. They carry patches, sprays, tinctures, rubs, massage and body oils and a variety of delicious-looking edibles ranging from gummy candies to caramel corn to cake balls. Everything is packaged with specific details on dosages and what is in it. There are also shelves of labeled jars, flush with well over 20 varieties of cannabis covering the spectrum of CBD and THC content. There are attendants on hand to answer any questions and help guide you to the best products for your needs. The whole experience is designed to remove any discomfort from the buying process for people who might have reservations, and it works.

Robbins is hopeful that the increased exposure to the medical benefits of marijuana will continue to grow the drug’s acceptance and in turn fuel more education and research about its potential.

“Cannabis has been able to help me in ways that more traditional drugs have not, and I really think it can do the same for other wheelchair users who struggle with the same kind of issues I do,” he says. “It’s time people start moving past tired old conceptions to embrace its potential and improve their lives.”

Fun fact
Portland now has 167 marijuana dispensaries overseen by the state and only 33 state-run liquor stores.