Pot Cafes test limits of tolerance ahead of fall initiative votes

Originally published on July 5, 2012 9:22 am

ASHLAND, Ore. - Friday is the deadline in Washington and Oregon for petition drives to turn in signatures to qualify measures for the November ballot. One issue on tap for both states is marijuana.

In Washington state, a measure to legalize and tax pot has already qualified for the November ballot. A similar initiative has a good chance of coming before Oregon voters.

A handful of entrepreneurs aren't waiting for the fall votes. They've opened medical marijuana lounges and eateries.

In the old days, the greeter at a restaurant might ask you, "Would you like smoking or non-smoking?" When a new marijuana-focused eatery opened in Ashland this spring, the order-taker instead asked: Would you like "medicated" or "non-medicated?"

Co-owner Kevin Wallace says authorized medical marijuana patients could order Mongolian barbecue spiked with donated pot.

"We would infuse it right at the end so that it would melt down and be infused in your whole meal," explains Wallace.

"A small bowl would be $6 whether it was medicated or not."

Wallace says his joint provides a healthy alternative to smoking for eligible medical marijuana users. But what Ashland city attorney David Lohman saw was an illegal business, and he told Wallace so.

"We felt that it would clearly be in violation of federal law and perhaps state law," says Lohman.

Federal law prohibits possession of marijuana and Oregon law forbids the use of the drug "in public view." So the Earth Dragon Asian Grill had to change its business plan, and quick. Now it operates on a bring-your-own model.

The seven tables out front and the show kitchen are open to the general public and operate like any other restaurant. Medical marijuana cardholders can bring their own pot and spike their meals in private in a curtained off lounge in back.

City Attorney Lohman says the set-up falls in "a pretty gray area," but the city issued a business license.

"Local jurisdictions are in a little bit of a dilemma trying to figure out how to proceed and we have our own priorities that we need to take care of too," Lohman says. "So for the moment nothing is happening and the restaurant I guess is operating."

Portland was home to the first cannabis cafes in the region. One operates in the open today. The World Famous Cannabis Café bills itself as a private club for medical marijuana cardholders only. It has a smoking lounge, serves food, but does not sell marijuana to patrons.

A similar start up business in suburban Portland called the "Wake n Bake Cannabis Lounge" was raided by narcotics detectives last year. The difference there was that marijuana and money changed hands.

Back in Ashland, a customer wearing a green t-shirt emblazoned with the words "Strictly Medicinal" emerges from behind the curtains of the back room. He gives his name as Ted Talk. Ted says the current set-up hearkens to an earlier era.

"It just reminds me of the stories my grandpa tells," says Ted. "He's 90. He tells me stories of growing up in the 1920s in Prohibition days. He compares every step that we're going through with marijuana is the same as Prohibition was with alcohol in his day when he grew up."

Voters in Oregon and Washington could decide to loosen the reins on marijuana further in November. But the future of pot cafes could be very different in the two states.

The proposed "Oregon Cannabis Tax Act" would allow marijuana cafes as long as people under 21 are excluded. Washington's ballot measure would allow retail sales of pot to adults, but specifically forbids on-site consumption.

In either case, conflicts with stricter federal laws remain.

Idaho's signature turn-in deadline for 2012 has already passed. Medical marijuana advocates failed in an attempt to qualify an Idaho initiative.

On the Web:

Oregon Cannabis Tax Act - full text:

http://oregonvotes.org/irr/2012/009text.pdf

Washington Initiative 502:

http://sos.wa.gov/_assets/elections/initiatives/i502.pdf

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