Conference speakers emphasize need for prospective shop owners to be good neighbors

John Darling, The Mail Tribune

Marijuana advocates say attempts by local governments to derail cannabis-related businesses could gain traction if business owners fail to be good neighbors.

At the Oregon Medical Marijuana Business Conference in Ashland on Friday, "canna-business" lawyer Leland Berger of Portland said marijuana shops haven't been tied to any rise in crime or drop in property values, but some cites are contemplating prohibition simply because "they don't want our kind."

Officials in several Oregon cities, including Medford, have expressed opposition to permitting marijuana-related businesses over concerns about violating federal laws or harming their business environment because of things such as litter, loitering and pot odors. That opposition comes in the face of new state legislation that will set up dispensaries for medical marijuana users and proposals to make pot legal for recreational use.

Berger pointed to a gray area of conflicting case law — he called it "rock, paper, scissors" — that says the court decisions of each higher level of government have sway over lesser courts, but at the same time give state supreme courts the last word on what's law in their state.

Municipalities also have home rule authority for ordinances, as long as they have a "rational basis" for it, he said.

Berger said that since the federal Department of Justice has stepped back from enforcing the federal Controlled Substances Act in states that have legalized medical or recreational cannabis, there is no rational basis for local bans in Oregon.

Regardless of their right to open businesses, owners can lose community support if they attract complaints and resulting attention from law enforcement, said Don Duncan, California director of Americans for Safe Access.

Cannabis-related business operators may believe in their work, Duncan noted, but marijuana "comes with baggage."

"The perception is of drug users, unsavory people, loitering, muggings and organized crime," Duncan said. "We're not starting on a neutral playing field."

Duncan noted that after California's legalization of medical marijuana, some operators' failures in being good neighbors and keeping attractive shops resulted in "bad laws" and increased police attention, he said.

To be successful, Duncan said, owners should follow basic customer service and appearance rules: Have good curb appeal, curtains, flowers growing out front, tidy parking areas, swept sidewalks and polite clerks — and no drawn shades, locked doors or big neon pot leaf signs.

A sponsor of Oregon's dispensary bill, Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said the Legislature in February likely would refer a recreational pot measure — a simple yes-no choice — to the ballot for a November vote.

"Oregon is ready to say yes on it," said Buckley, noting that proposed legalization in 2012 was "underfunded and poorly thought out." The citizens' initiative measure lost by more than 120,000 votes, or about 8 percentage points.

If a new measure passes, Buckley said, he expects the Legislature would write rules for the system that would closely resemble Colorado's. The legislation also would direct a substantial revenue stream into the state's coffers, as well as boost tourism to the region, much as the booming wine trade has, he said.

Berger said he expected some cities to continue efforts to obstruct licensing of medical pot shops, but said that approach is misdirected.

"We want to be good members of the community," Berger said. "Municipalities (opposing dispensaries) can create a revenue stream for business or expend revenue to fight the issue."

Buckley lauded an Ashland City Council decision that the city would not try to preempt state law in dealing with medical marijuana dispensaries. He predicted little traction for any bill in the February legislative session attempting to roll back the dispensary law.

"The important thing," said Buckley, "is that I strongly encourage people in the industry to run it professionally, to be sticklers abiding by the rules and keeping any away from the black market."

The two-day conference at Ashland Springs Hotel drew several hundred attendees. It was sponsored by Ashland Alternative Health. Another session is scheduled to be held in Eugene in March.