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Legal Drug Dealers Prepare to Set Up Shop in Oregon

A measure on this November's ballot would allow state residents to buy marijuana for medical purposes

Pot sales are conducted behind the curtain on the right at the Green Heart medical marijuana dispensary in Mount Shasta, California.
Pot sales are conducted behind the curtain on the right at the Green Heart medical marijuana dispensary in Mount Shasta, California.

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Chris Lehman

Oregon is one of 14 U.S. states that allows its citizens to use marijuana for medical purposes. But they can't legally buy the drug. They have to grow it themselves or find a caregiver to grow it for them.  

A measure on this November's ballot would change that by following California's lead in allowing storefront pot sales.  California has hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries but sponsors of Oregon's Measure 74 say their measure takes a more conservative approach.

Drug deals

Several drug deals take place all of the time in Mount Shasta, California.

It's late afternoon at The Green Heart, a medical marijuana dispensary where a steady stream of customers comes in the door of the basement shop. They sit in a waiting room until a clerk examines their ID. Once approved, they're invited into a second curtained-off room to make their purchase.

"We got some joints," says the sales clerk. "Did you want one? I know you're a joint guy."

In just over 10 minutes, a half-dozen customers buy nearly $240 worth of pot.

One of them is Army veteran Tim Scarborough, who says he injured his knee during a training accident. He says marijuana helps control the pain. And he says he can't grow this much at home.

"This place is a convenience," says Scarborough. "Right now my plants aren't even close to being mature to harvest. I still have another month, month and a half before I could do that."

The Green Heart marijuana dispensary is located in a basement storefront.
The Green Heart marijuana dispensary is located in a basement storefront.

Another customer, Terri Barton, says she has bipolar disorder, but admits she's been using pot since her early teens, long before California voters approved medical marijuana in 1996. She says it's much easier to shop at the dispensary than buy it on the street. Barton believes marijuana helps her condition, but can't explain how.

"I don't know the details of the plant. It's medicine for me," she says. "I buy it in a little sack, and I consume it by smoking it." Turning to the clerk, she asks, "Can I get three grams of the cheapest you got?"

Promoting drug use?

The Green Heart is one of three marijuana dispensaries in this northern California town. It's a different story just up the road in Yreka, where the city council has banned them altogether. City Manager Steve Baker says dispensaries don't fit the family-friendly image the city is trying to create.

"We're looking at a storefront where people advertise," says Baker. "They're encouraging the use, possibly, well beyond the original intent of the use of medical marijuana."

That's the argument law enforcement organizations are making in Oregon. Sheriffs, police chiefs and district attorneys say giving the green light to marijuana storefronts will lead to more abuse of the drug by making it more available.

Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin says medical pot dispensaries can be targets for crime. But that isn't his only problem with Measure 74.

"Is this about pain or is this about profit?" asks Bergin. "The final outcome, what they're really hoping for, is just total legality of another drug into our society."

Pushing the limits

In fact, California is about to go one step further. In November, voters will decide whether to legalize marijuana - and not just for medical purposes. However, supporters of the Oregon dispensary measure say that's not on the agenda here.

They point to Measure 74's safeguards against abuse: criminal background checks for employees while dispensaries and growers would have to register with the state. That's not required in California. And unlike California, medical marijuana users in Oregon are required to carry state-issued cards.

One of Measure 74's chief petitioners, Alice Ivany, says Oregon can learn from what she sees as California's mistakes.

"We're trying to legitimize this. We're trying to take the concern away from the public with having inspections on these specific gardens. We're having dispensaries inspected."

While she and the thousands of other Oregonians who use medical marijuana may grow their own pot, she says the dispensary measure is an insurance policy for when their crops fail. To Ivany, permitting a corner shop to sell marijuana is about compassion for people with chronic illnesses, who have a hard time getting medication.

It's also about compensation. The state would get a 10 percent cut of dispensary marijuana sales.

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