A decade ago, before any states legalized recreational marijuana use, it would have been hard to imagine the reality of legalized marijuana here or anywhere else in the U.S.
But it’s now a different story. Recreational use of the drug is legal in 10 states and in Washington, D.C., with many other states legalizing it for medicinal use. A Nov. 6 advisory referendum, introduced to measure local opinion, found that 59 percent of voters in Racine County said marijuana use should be legalized for adults, while 81 percent said sales should be taxed if it was legalized.
To better understand marijuana legalization and reform, The Journal Times took a look at two cities at opposite ends of the United States, similar in size to Racine and which are located in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Today we takes a look at the city of Medford, Oregon. Monday’s Journal Times will look at Portland, Maine.
Medford is a city in southwest Oregon, just 30 miles north of the California border. It lies in Jackson County and as of 2017 its population was 81,000. Marijuana was legalized in Oregon in 2014 through Measure 91, a statewide ballot measure which received 56 percent approval.
In Medford, the community provided The Journal Times with several ordinances the city has adopted relating to subjects such as odor, commercial sale and zoning and even home delivery of the product. In simplest terms, Medford allows its citizens to engage in the use of marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes.
However, Medford has prohibited outdoor production of both recreational and medical marijuana, both for homeowners and on vacant land within residential areas. This was passed by Medford’s City Council because of the “offensive odor of marijuana.” The city also recently passed laws relating to the home delivery of marijuana, saying a marijuana-related business must comply with all applicable state laws and regulations and must carry an invoice during the delivery.
Local regulations also say that a marijuana-related business must conduct operations inside “secure, enclosed structures.” Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler said these laws are in place for good reason.
“I looked at that (Measure 91) and said the voters have spoken, and as a city council we need to do the best job we can to control what we can,” he said. “You need to make sure you have things in place that control how and where it’s placed. We have, so far, pretty well controlled how marijuana is grown within the city limits … but a lot of those things are in the state laws.”
The overarching agency that approves or denies marijuana retail licenses is the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. As of Nov. 15, 658 license applications were recorded for Jackson County, the second-highest in the State of Oregon. A marijuana business license includes a producer, processor, wholesaler, lab and retail shop.
In Medford, there are currently 25 retail licenses that have been approved, meaning there are 25 businesses in Medford that can sell marijuana directly to consumers. In comparison, there are 12 Starbucks in the city.
One common reason the OLCC might deny a license is if the individual on the application doesn’t pass a background check. The commission can also deny a license if the business would be located within 1,000 feet of a school or if there is a question about the source of the financing.
The OLCC has a backup of approximately 1,000 license requests, as it is currently re-licensing existing applicants. All marijuana facilities must sign the OLCC’s land-use compatibility statement as well, to determine whether a land-use proposal is consistent with a local government’s comprehensive plan and land-use regulations.
“It has to sit into the zoning scheme of which they want to locate,” said Mark Pettinger, spokesman for the OLCC. “That’s a big starter or non-starter for us.”
Robert Weinger is the owner of Cannabiz Experience, a retail marijuana shop in Medford. Weinger spent eight months researching states that had marijuana laws. He decided to come to Oregon four years ago because he thought it would be too hard to open a shop in California or Washington because of those states’ laws. He estimates that it cost about $1 million to get his shop up and running.
An average sale at a retail marijuana shop in Oregon totals about $35. But at Cannabiz, Weinger says that number is closer to $68 to $96. His shop sells edibles (food laced with THC), concentrates and even pre-rolled marijuana joints, among many other items. He says his shop is 50 percent regular customers. His average customer? Middle-aged and older women, he said.
Weinger said that although the many rules and regulations can be hard to follow at times, he has had no issues with local government or law enforcement.
“It’s no different than doing anything else in business — the only caveat is that you have to follow the rules more,” he said. “If you’re an entrepreneur and you happen to like marijuana, then you should do well if you think of it as a business.”
A new revenue pool
Oregon set the state base tax rate for recreational marijuana at 17 percent, using the money for schools, police and enforcement of Measure 91. Oregon also gave cities and counties the possibility to impose an additional 3 percent sales tax. This is something that Medford takes advantage of. Through Sept. 30, the city has received $839,100 in revenue from marijuana taxes for its 2017-19 biennial budget.
This is something that Medford City Council member Clay Bearnson said is a bonus for the city.
“It’s been a big benefit and we are hoping to use the money for the good of the community,” he said, adding that the city is looking to possibly build a new pool or homeless shelter with the money. “I hope we will have some tangible rewards that the public can see.”
Mayor Wheeler also said this is a plus.
“It’s not a huge amount, but for a city like ours, it helps other things,” he said.
In the first full year of legalization, Oregon collected $70.2 million in state cannabis taxes.
Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement is the local drug enforcement agency. MADGE is comprised of local, state and federal investigators that work with other government agencies to share information and resources to dismantle drug trafficking and money laundering in the area.
The biggest problems MADGE faces are illegal grow sites and the exportation of marijuana to other states, according to Lt. Kerry Curtis of the Medford Police Department. According to Curtis, MADGE has seized 2,069 pounds of illegally manufactured marijuana to date in 2018 — up from 574 lbs. in 2016.
“Marijuana is certainly a problem in regards to the illicit activity, which has created problems for those who are in compliance with the law and are trying to operate legal dispensaries,” Curtis said.
As needed, the OLCC takes out enforcement action against businesses it has licensed. Local jurisdictions and state police enforce home grow and personal possession. The current limit for marijuana plants is four per residence. One ounce of useable marijuana is allowed in a public place as well. Curtis said that just one mature marijuana plant can yield a “useable amount of marijuana.”
The black market of marijuana relates to growers who attempt to sell marijuana outside of the state. Last year, it was reported that illegal marijuana seizures by MADGE had increased by 52 percent since 2015.
As for the outdoor grow law in Medford, a $250-a-day fine can be imposed if there is a complaint from a neighbor. However, citizens can grow cannabis indoors and in greenhouses, as long as neighbors don’t complain about the odor. In all of 2017, the city handled 18 outdoor grow complaints and three odor complaints.
“I think marijuana is starting to mature in terms of an industry and the people as far as the retail end of it understand … that they need to act as an honest broker in these things,” said Mayor Wheeler. “We aren’t stationed outside their door or anything, but they need to follow the rules like anyone else, as if it’s a bar or a restaurant.”
“I looked at that (Measure 91) and said the voters have spoken, and as a city council we need to do the best job we can to control what we can ... you need to make sure you have things in place that control how and where it’s placed.” Gary Wheeler,
mayor of Medford, Ore.