BY JOSHUA HUNT
PHOTOS BY CHRIS NOBLE
Dan is 41 and has spent the last 18 years of his life working for a major aircraft company in the Portland area. It’s a good living but nothing compared to the millions of dollars worth of pot that he sells each year — legally.
Far from the image of Walter White, the suburban drug kingpin of television’s Breaking Bad, Dan, who asked that we not print his last name, is just one of hundreds of entrepreneurs who are betting big on medical marijuana in Oregon. It’s far from a long shot, according to a report cited by the Huffington Post, which predicts legal marijuana sales will grow to $2.34 billion nationally in 2014. If the report is correct, legal pot will outstrip even the competitive smartphone market in terms of growth this year.
That growth has been sparked by a national trend unfolding in states that have moved to decriminalize marijuana, which is still illegal under federal law. In Colorado, a family-owned shop that began in 2010 as a medical marijuana dispensary took in nearly $100,000 on the first day of business operating under new state laws that allow the sale of recreational pot, according to Yahoo News.
In Oregon, pot has also been paying off for businessmen like Dan, an early adopter who opened Mt. Hood Wellness Center, a medical marijuana dispensary with two Portland area locations, three years ago.
Business is booming, thanks to more than 60,000 registered Oregon Medical Marijuana Program cardholders, whom researchers at Oregon State University estimate spend about $96 million annually on cannabis products. But that number is set to explode in 2014, with more people than ever before eligible for medical marijuana under a broader set of qualifying conditions that now includes post-traumatic stress disorder. Less than a month after patients diagnosed with PTSD legally qualified for OMMP cards, many dispensary owners had already noted an increase in business from them — many of them veterans.
There is, however, another reason industry insiders are expecting a boost in 2014. In March the Oregon Health Authority began its medical marijuana dispensary registry program, which gives operations like Dan’s a new set of rules to follow: mandatory, round-the-clock security; required laboratory testing to ensure marijuana that is free of mold, mildew and pesticides; rules keeping dispensaries more than 1,000 feet away from schools and other dispensaries.
It’s a system industry experts say is going to separate the weed from the chaff, allowing legitimate businesses to generate millions in annual revenue and attracting mainstream investors, while forcing out a criminal element that have thrived on the fringes of Oregon’s medical marijuana industry.
“This registry is going to bring transparency into the equation, and that’s going to make the whole industry more honest, open and profitable,” Dan says. “For the first time, businesses like mine will be able to advertise, and with all dispensaries required to test their product, patients aren’t going to get cheated by criminals looking to make a quick buck selling bad weed to people who don’t know any better.”
Momentum to legalize marijuana continues to grow, and the registry will give the industry a level of legitimacy it has never known before. But in Oregon, considered a seminal state in the debate over legalizing pot, there are also signs the industry will evolve along familiar lines — reinforcing an urban/rural divide that has marked the state’s history for decades.