Jeremy Robbins broke his neck in a bicycle accident 20 years ago. He’s in a wheelchair and has been prescribed cannabis for chronic pain and spasms.
The trouble is, he lives in public housing, which means he’s not allowed to smoke his medicine at home.
“I just don’t understand how come there isn’t a space provided where me and a lot of other folks like me can go, and we can imbibe in this medicine and also have a community where we can support each other,” Robbins said.
He told a public hearing in Salem that the state is being inconsistent — allowing bars all over the place, but not cannabis cafes.
Oregon cannabis businesses are trying to normalize the use of their product with Senate Bill 639 in Salem this session.
The initial effort would have allowed customers to consume cannabis at cafes, including by smoking it, but that is already changing.
The push to allow cannabis consumption has come from marijuana patients, like Robbins, as well as businesses interested in filling a niche.
Buying cannabis has been legal in Oregon for years now. But unless a consumer owns their own home, there’s hardly anywhere legal to smoke it.
Not in a park, not on a public street and not in most rental housing.
Sara Kemple manages The Dispensary on 52nd, a cannabis shop in southeast Portland. She said tourists come to Oregon to try marijuana and leave sadly disappointed.
“And some people didn’t know that they weren’t able to smoke in the hotels, and some people were just smoking in the street and they get yelled at for that. So there isn’t really anywhere for people to smoke,” said Kemple.
She said some tourists end up just smoking in their hotel rooms and then paying the no-smoking fine.
Kemple says the original plans for her business involved a cafe — so people could buy marijuana and enjoy it on site. The building’s still plumbed for an espresso machine. So if the law changes, she’s ready.
“At some point, we want to offer, you know, drinks in the front. And we’re going to have like seating tables outside. We want to have that kind of casual environment. We’re going to try and get food trucks outside, and then maybe offer CBD-infused drinks. Obviously not psychoactive things yet. But if we could, we would definitely go that route,” said Kemple.
She thinks allowing customers to smoke cannabis on site would boost the bottom line.
“I mean, I definitely think it would increase our business. Probably maybe even triple or five times our business,” she said.
Indoor air quality
Supporters are hoping to keep options open for businesses like The Dispensary on 52nd while responding to concerns about indoor air quality.
Sam Chapman, of the New Revenue Coalition, says the group is offering an amendment to Senate Bill 639, which would limit what customers could consume inside cafes to noncombustible products — like edibles and tinctures.
Chapman says they’d have to go outside to smoke.
“It would be in an enclosed area, outside, out of view of the public where only people 21 and older could access,” said Chapman.
Lawmakers at a public hearing in February balked at the idea of carving out an exception to the Indoor Clean Air Act for cannabis cafes.
The cafes would give tourists and other cannabis consumers a legal place to get together and smoke.
The cafes also promise to significantly increase tax revenues.
Supporters will now wait to see if the amendment is enough to convince lawmakers to continue fighting for cannabis cafes.
Regardless of the details of the bill, some observers question whether further changes to Oregon’s cannabis laws would attract additional attention from federal prosecutors.
Kemple is not worried about that.
“I think that they already assume people are smoking it. So I don’t think they would care where it’s being smoked at,” said Kemple.
Senate Bill 639 would do more than just allow cannabis cafes. It would allow sales and consumption at fairs and concerts. It would allow home deliveries, and tours at licensed premises, so bringing the vineyard tour and tasting model to the cannabis farm.
Cafe proponent Chapman thinks opening up how cannabis can be sold and consumed would allow businesses to treat it like other successful craft industries.
“I think the other thing that this bill stands to do is increase tax revenue that is generated, right?” said Chapman.
“The state took in $82 million of cannabis tax revenue last year.”
In addition, the bill requires jurisdictions to “opt-in.” So cities and counties that don’t want any part of it, don’t have to be part of it.
When the bill was discussed, before the recent amendment, the strongest opposition came from legislators like state Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, who’s also a retired public health nurse.
“We worked so hard to get the (Indoor Clean Air Act) and it’s just really disheartening to think that we are going to backtrack,” said Monnes Anderson.
But Monnes Anderson’s concerns weren’t limited to smoke. She argued that more research needs to be done on cannabis and its effect on pregnant women, brain development and other things before she’d support cannabis cafes.
The law is being sponsored by Oregon Health & Science University doctor Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward and Eugene prosecutor Sen. Floyd Prozanski. He says the bill will be good for people living in federal housing, for home deliveries and site tours of cannabis farms.
“It will, in fact, allow for retail to be done at special events,” said Prozanski. “I believe it will help with the tourism, also cannabis lounges.”
The cannabis industry is so new and in such turmoil that few people realized there is already a place where people get together to smoke cannabis.
It’s called the NW Cannabis Club, and it’s in southeast Portland.
Inside, it’s like an old-school bar. Customers light up glass bongs in a variety of shapes. Music plays through a thick fug of smoke. Customers have to be over 21 and pay $20 to become a lifetime member. They have to bring their own cannabis. Every time they visit, there’s a $5 fee.
Owner Mike Keysor said it’s all legal because it’s a private club.
“I was open prior to the changes in the Indoor Clean Air Act in this state,” he said. “There were two other clubs open at the time. Those other two clubs succumbed to the pressure and closed. I did not.”
Keysor said he has been cited several times for violating the Indoor Clean Air Act, but he believes the business is grandfathered.
Keysor is disgusted he’s not allowed to sell alcohol or food, and that he can’t have any gambling.
“Government needs to let people alone,” said Keysor.
“You made it legal. You taxed the living crap out of it. Just let them smoke pot. Let them enjoy. A lot of our members are older folks. They paid their dues, they don’t need to be harassed anymore.”