WHEN IT COMES to pot, no place in the country feels as rife with opportunity as Portland.
Next month, anyone 21 and older will be able to walk into one of the city's rapidly proliferating dispensaries and buy a quarter-ounce of weed. And next year, a whole new class of recreational pot shops will increase options in the state's largest population center, peddling pot drinks, edibles, lotions, tinctures, and much more.
But here's the hitch for this fast-approaching wonderland: It looks like not that much is actually going to change.
Facing pressure from the medical pot industry, Portland City Council is considering regulations that will vastly limit new pot shops. Rather than welcoming new entrepreneurs and businesses into the city, the council instead appears ready to give a leg up to existing medical dispensaries.
"The result that we want is not doing injury to the folks who are already licensed," Mayor Charlie Hales said at a September 16 city council meeting, where commissioners took up a new marijuana licensing program for the first time. "Those who are operating legally and properly ought to have a shot at the business."
City council came away from that meeting seeming to favor strict standards for setting up a cannabis store in town. Under rules the council will consider Wednesday, September 23, medical marijuana dispensaries and recreational pot shops must be at least 1,000 feet from one another, and from schools.
That's the same standard medical dispensaries in the state already labor under, and it's in part an attempt to curb situations like Hayden Island's infamous "Lottery Row," a fetid strip of video lottery dens that Hales called "a very odious situation."
But the 1,000-foot rule will have a broader effect than eliminating long strips of ganja peddlers, industry watchers say. It will make it hard to site a new business inside Portland city limits at all—because medical marijuana dispensaries have already taken up much of the available real estate.
"It would effectively lock out any new business owner entering into the Portland market," says Anthony Johnson, an activist who helped lead last year's legalization campaign. "All of the good property is taken up."
The Oregon Health Authority (OHA), responsible for licensing medical pot dispensaries, agrees. The agency provides an online map showing where existing dispensaries sit in relation to schools. And with more than 150 medical shops already approved in Portland, the city's rapidly filling up.
"There is not a lot of real estate left for siting a dispensary," says OHA spokesman Jonathan Modie.
The 1,000-foot standard council is considering is tougher than city staffers had originally proposed.
Regulations drafted by the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI) initially required only that medical dispensaries be 1,000 feet from other medical dispensaries, and recreational shops be 1,000 feet from other recreational shops. In theory, that would have meant a medical outlet and a recreational store could operate side-by-side (at least one business was quietly planning such an arrangement).
But medical dispensary owners and industry attorneys flipped out over this proposal. Many dispensaries are itching to switch over to recreational sales—with its much larger customer base ["Two Sides of the Same Leaf," News, Feb 11]. Dispensary owners showed up in force to the September 16 council meeting, worried that the city would allow recreational shops to open up near their businesses, eliminating their shot at going recreational.
"If they don't [go retail] it spells the end of their business," Don Morse, a dispensary owner and director of the Oregon Cannabis Business Council, told commissioners. "You're setting up a dynamic that will punish the people who paved the way."
Others piled on. Amy Margolis, a Portland attorney who works extensively with cannabis industry members, said the rules would create "an unintended and unfortunate consequence." She suggested the city adopt a 1,000-foot protective barrier around all pot shops, regardless of type, and council was intrigued. Commissioner Dan Saltzman called it an "elegant solution."
The effects of that solution are partly highlighted in numbers conjured by ONI, which will regulate pot businesses in town. The office initially predicted roughly 260 medical pot dispensaries and recreational stores within city limits. It was an overly simple guess—the office was using outdated data that said the city had 132 pot dispensaries, and just doubled that number. (For comparison, Portland has 34 liquor stores, and about 3,400 liquor licensees.)
In light of city council's interest in protecting existing dispensaries, ONI adjusted its forecast to 200 dispensaries and recreational shops, but it's not clear how it arrived at that figure. The bureau's livability programs supervisor, Theresa Marchetti, cited a preliminary study, but wouldn't show it to the Mercury, calling it "not something I feel is credible enough to release."
People who've worked under the state's pot laws think the number might be optimistic.
"What [city council] did is protect all the existing dispensaries, and at the same time ensure that if more dispensaries open, they're going to have a hard time," says Morse, who runs a dispensary called the Human Collective. "That's gonna keep the density down."
Morse, who's anxious to turn his medical business into a recreational one, says the rules protect his interests so he'll have that choice. But ONI says that's not guaranteed just yet.
According to Marchetti, it's unclear under the proposed regulations whether an aspiring business owner will be able to obtain property near a dispensary, file an application for a city-provided marijuana retail license before that existing dispensary, and effectively push it out of business. "I think that's still to be determined," she says.
The city plans to begin accepting license applications on December 1, and they won't come cheap. It's now $975 just to apply for a retail license, and an additional $4,175 once applicants are approved.