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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

2015 Was A Historic Year For Marijuana In Oregon

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network
Margo Lucas shows customer Tammy Perry a selection of marijuana at West Salem Cannabis.

When 2015 dawned, it was illegal to grow, smoke or buy marijuana in Oregon unless you held a medical marijuana card. Now, all of those things are legal for adults.

July 1, 2015 was a day many Oregonians had been waiting for for decades. As midnight drew near, crowds gathered in downtown Portland to count down the minutes until marijuana use became legal for all Oregon adults. TV news crews were there to capture the moment.

"Many here are yelling ‘Weed, we want weed,’” a reporter noted.

When the clock struck midnight, people lit up to celebrate their new freedom to smoke pot. Never mind the fact that using it in public remains illegal, provision of the 2014 voter-approved ballot measure that legalized marijuana in Oregon.

The drug became even more widely available in October. That's when recreational sales began.

Keys to a successful (marijuana) business

West Salem Cannabis owner Margo Lucas said she's scrambling to keep up with customer demand.

"We open at noon here. And we typically always have a big line,” Lucas said. “People can't wait to get in the door when we open.”

Customer Tammy Perry stopped in for some pot on her way home.

"I've smoked daily since 1993,” she said.

And until this year, she had to grow it herself or buy it on the sly.

"Isn't this amazing? I have my mother and my sister with me and they just did not want to come in. Neither one of them smoke,” Perry said. “But they're like, ‘oh is this a pot store?’ And I'm like, ‘this is my store. I think it's wonderful.’ I think it's wonderful."

Lucas won't say if she's turning a profit yet. But she said the keys to running a successful marijuana business are a lot like any other business.

"There's three legs to that stool I think that's going to drive that market here in Oregon. It's going to be convenience, choice and pricing,” Lucas said.

The pricing piece of that equation gets a little more complicated in 2016. A 25 percent sales tax on marijuana is effective January 4. Later in the year it will drop to as low as 17 percent at some marijuana retailers.

'Like buying a six-pack of beer'

Lucas said some of her customers are starting to stock up before the tax kicks in. But trying to avoid the tax man is a far cry from trying to dodge the police. The next customer as the store knows that. But he's still trying to stay on the down low.

He introduced himself as “John Doe."

Margo Lucas laughed because she knows him and -- obviously -- that’s not his name. But “Doe,” a 64-year-old Salem physician who's been smoking pot for more than 40 years, had a prediction for a few years down the road.

"It'll be just like walking in and buying a six-pack of beer,” he said.

But for now, he doesn't want his love of marijuana to become public knowledge.

"There's still plenty of people out there who think marijuana's the gateway to hell,” he said. “They just don't understand, that's all."

Changes afoot

And while 2015 was a big year for marijuana in Oregon, the coming year promises to be interesting too. In addition to the new tax, the state will start officially licensing growers, processors, distributors and retailers. The stores that are selling now are doing so under a temporary early sales program for existing medical marijuana dispensaries.

But Anthony Johnson, the chief petitioner of the marijuana legalization measure, said there are clouds on the horizon. He pointed to the more than 70 cities and counties that have banned retail pot sales.

"If marijuana businesses are not allowed in a community the demand, the use of marijuana doesn't go away,: he said. “It just pushes that activity into illicit environments."

But some of those bans could be short-lived. Voters in nearly half of those communities will have the chance to overturn the moratorium on their November 2016 ballot.