How Oregon's rollout of legal marijuana is different

The sale of legal recreational marijuana began in Oregon Thursday, and there are several new wrinkles in how the state is regulating the industry.

Bob Pennell/The Medford Mail Tribune/AP
Phoenix business owner Ed Polish scans the cannabis on display at Green Valley Wellness Thursday in Talent, Ore. Oregon marijuana shops began selling marijuana Thursday for the first time to recreational users, marking a big day for the pot industry.

With Oregon legalizing marijuana for recreational use Thursday, there are early indications that states are learning from one another’s experiences.

Oregon is the third state to allow the sale of recreational marijuana, following Colorado and Washington, and its rollout is unique. Even though state officials are still working out the full battery of regulations – which are not expected before the end of 2016 – consumers can start buying marijuana now.

There are limits: Specifically, customers can purchase up to a quarter ounce of leaves and flowers, an unlimited number of seeds, and no more than four immature plants – only at a licensed medical dispensary.

But the plan shows that Oregon has been paying attention to other experiments with legal marijuana, says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Oregon’s staggered rollout is meant to begin the process of weaning consumers from the black market as soon as possible by encouraging them to buy from legitimate businesses, even before the full range of regulations is in place, he says via e-mail. “No other state has previously introduced limited retail sales in such a manner.”

There are other signs Oregon lawmakers are trying to address concerns in new ways, says Mason Tvert, director of communication for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) in Denver. For instance, the legislation allows businesses to aggressively police themselves to ensure they're not selling to minors. “In Colorado, [regulators] might bring in an underage person to test whether a business would sell to them, like they do with tobacco or alcohol,” Mr. Tvert says. “But in Oregon, the businesses can actually do it themselves under the legislation.”

The process of one state learning from the experiences of others is likely only to gain momentum as efforts to legalize marijuana spread. Voters in Ohio will consider legislation this November, while a measure in Nevada has qualified for the 2016 ballot, and similar initiatives are expected to qualify for the ballot in Arizona, California, Maine, and Massachusetts, according to the MPP. Alaska has already voted to legalize recreational marijuana, though sales will not begin before next year.

One issue that states are grappling with is the regulation of marijuana-infused edibles, such as candy and baked goods. Colorado faced a rash of bad publicity in the wake of a college student’s death and a searing account by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Her narrative recounted a downward spiral after consuming more than the recommended amount of THC-infused chocolate. The Wyoming college student fell to his death from a balcony after consuming a bag of infused cookies rather than the single cookie, the recommended amount. 

“There are a lot of consumers who don’t have experience with eating infused products,” says Tvert.

Colorado now has regulations about how to recognize what a serving size is and how much to consume. Manufacturers must clearly state the amount of infusion that the edible product contains, and they must create dividers in the product. “If you have a package with 10 servings, they have to be clearly divided or separated,” Tvert says.

For some Oregonians, the approval of medical marijuana by voters in 1998 helped pave the way for acceptance of recreational marijuana today.

Marty Sanders didn’t have any use for marijuana and didn’t much like the idea of making it legal for anyone in his home state before he got injured on the job. Now, the general contractor still uses a marijuana cream for medical reasons that he first took on the advice of his pharmacist wife.

On Thursday, the medical dispensary he owns with his wife in Hood River, Ore., joined others around the state in selling marijuana products legally to adults age 21 or older.

“I used to be very opposed to cannabis,” says Mr. Sanders. Now he feels that the product, if used responsibly, has good uses. “Just like any product, if it’s abused it can be a bad thing.”

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