Oregon’s road to marijuana legalization five years ago was anything but straight.
Early attempts to sell medical marijuana ran afoul of local laws, and retailers struggled to gain a foothold in Medford and other cities that took a dim view of legalization.
But there were pioneers who helped blaze a path to what has become Southern Oregon’s biggest agricultural crop, and an industry that now plays a significant role in the local economy.
Brie Malarkey was the first to open a “legal” medical marijuana store in Jackson County, Breeze Botanicals, on June 14, 2014, in Gold Hill, and then it became the first licensed recreational marijuana store in Oregon when she was granted the first retail license in the state in 2015. She now owns another store in Ashland, and her company puts out various products under the Sun God Medicinals label.
Malarkey remembers her first days and how difficult it was to turn away a cancer patient because she didn’t have a medical marijuana card.
“That moment has stayed with me, and it is one of the reasons I want to be involved in this,” Malarkey said.
The industry has changed dramatically in the intervening years, but Malarkey said she continues to have the same commitment to providing the best quality product for those looking for the healing properties of cannabis.
And she’s noticed a sea change in people’s opinions about cannabis.
“I feel like there’s a lot more public acceptance,” she said. “I don’t see as much fear and judgment in the community.”
But the transition of rural land into acres of cannabis and hemp grows has been a hard sell for many Southern Oregonians.
Many residents were alarmed at the large number of 6-foot-tall fences protecting the marijuana crops — which were required under state law.
Next came hemp, and suddenly people were concerned that the crops were not hidden behind fences. Hemp, which doesn’t produce the “high” of recreational cannabis, looks almost identical and is just as pungent as its recreational cannabis cousin.
Cannabis growers were alarmed when the first hemp growers announced they’d be planting male plants. The fear was that the pollen from the male plants would drift over to fields of cannabis, basically destroying the crop.
However, virtually all hemp growers began cultivating female hemp plants to extract CBD, or cannibidiol.
Over the past year, when hemp growers began unraveling giant rolls of industrial plastic mulch, residents complained again, and it remains to be seen what the impact of all that plastic will be.
Through all of these ups and down, Malarkey has seen a roller coaster of supply and a market flooded with inexpensive cannabis.
Last year, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission stopped issuing new marijuana permits, saying the system was awash in a glut of marijuana — enough to last 6.5 years, according to state estimates — which was driving down prices and, some feared, could fuel black market sales in states where marijuana is still illegal.
The Oregon Legislature formalized the moratorium with SB 218, which put a freeze on new producer licenses through Jan. 2, 2022.
Partly as a result of the glut, many recreational growers — and would-be growers who couldn’t get permits to grow recreational pot — planted hemp. Now many retailers and wholesalers are saying they can’t find enough cannabis to stock their shelves, and prices are again on the rise. As it turns out, that 6.5-year backlog of bud was processed into edibles, tinctures, extracts and other products with a more stable shelf life, leaving a scarcity of smokable flower, yet the moratorium continues.
Hannah Hayes, sales manager at Confident Cannabis, a wholesale company that tracks marijuana sales statistics in Oregon, says that when legalization occurred local cannabis sold in the range of $2,500 to $3,000 a pound. That lasted about 3 or 4 months and then started stabilizing in the $1,800 to $2,400 range.
At the peak of the glut, prices dropped as low as $300 a pound for outdoor grown weed and about $500 for indoor-grown, according to data from Confident Cannabis. At that point, local dispensaries were selling cannabis for $3 to $5 a gram.
In November 2019, wholesale prices were rebounding. Outdoor bud was selling in the neighborhood of $800 a pound, with indoor bud going for $1,400 to more than $2,000 a pound.
Malarkey said her stores try to maintain a niche of top-quality flower and artisan products. When she opened her store, she had only five strains available. Now she’s up to 30, which is a relatively limited number, but Malarkey said she wants only top-grade products on her shelves.
“My focus is on organic and natural,” Malarkey said.
Before she started Breeze Botanicals, others attempted to open medical marijuana stores, including The Greenery in Phoenix and MaryJane’s Attic and Basement in Medford. Both The Greenery and MaryJane’s closed down after long legal battles in their respective cities.
In one high profile case, law enforcement raided Southern Oregon Normal, a downtown medical marijuana dispensary in Medford.
Lori Duckworth vividly recalls the raid that took place May 23, 2013, and her life was turned upside down.
Since then, she has had her felony conviction for delivery of marijuana expunged from her record. Duckworth went through a divorce and successfully battled cancer, yet she has continued to work in the marijuana industry and is now part owner of The Coughie Pot, a store in Sumpter.
Rather than retreating, Duckworth said the 2013 raid made her more committed to marijuana legalization.
Duckworth said she helped with the effort to legalize marijuana retail sales in Ontario.
She is also helping with an effort to legalize marijuana in Idaho, and she is part owner of a hemp store in Boise. She is also working on her own CBD brand that will include topical treatments.
“My life goal is to make sure that in every state it’s legal,” she said. “I want to make sure people are not going to jail and have safe access to their medicine.”
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.