Medical marijuana in Oregon: Be a good neighbor, California marijuana advocate tells prospective dispensary owners

Noelle Crombie, The Oregonian

Medical marijuana retailers in Oregon need to shift their focus from staying out of jail to being stand-up business owners who sweep their sidewalks each morning and donate to local charities, a California marijuana advocate told prospective dispensary owners on Friday.

Don Duncan, the California director of Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana patient advocacy group, spoke to about 150 people gathered here for the Oregon Medical Marijuana Business Conference.

The sold-out event is one of two major marijuana conferences being held this week in Oregon. The National Cannabis Industry Association, based in Washington, D.C., will hold a daylong symposium in Portland on Saturday.

Duncan offered prospective marijuana retailers some “nuts and bolts” advice on how to transition from an underground establishment into a mainstream business with a Chamber of Commerce membership.

Negative public perceptions of marijuana are the biggest issue for dispensary operators, Duncan said. He said even in places perceived as tolerant of marijuana, many people associate the drug with “irresponsible behavior” or their “unemployed relative who sits on the couch all day smoking pot.”

“We are not starting on a neutral playing field,” said Duncan, who helped launch medical marijuana dispensaries in California. “We start with the perception that we are criminals and drug abusers and that we are going to bring down the neighborhood.”

Much of Duncan’s advice seems basic to any business: be courteous to customers; make sure your business looks welcoming and well kept; go out of your way to meet your neighbors and introduce yourself to the cop on the beat.

But these steps are especially essential for dispensaries, which are bound to raise eyebrows, he said. Operators need to make community outreach a priority and head off complaints before they reach police.

“You want to be focused on your patients and clients and the work you are doing,” he said. “You certainly don’t want to take time out to talk to law enforcement about complaints.”

Businesses should consider their “curb appeal,” which includes landscaping and fresh paint if the storefront needs it. He warned against tinted windows and keeping the blinds drawn, which reflect a “fortress mentality.”

“You don’t want to be what is perceived as a blight on your neighborhood,” said Duncan.

He also said facilities should feature signs that fit in with the surrounding area.

“You don’t want to be the only one on the block with a big flashing pot leaf,” he said. “That won’t endear you to your neighbors very much.”

Don’t allow consumption at your business because it bugs neighbors, he said. On-site consumption is generally not allowed in Oregon dispensaries under the state rules.

“All of that really comes to a head if someone is standing in front of your house and smoking a joint,” Duncan told the crowd. “Some of you are thinking, ‘That’s awesome. I’m going to go out and hit that too.’ But that’s not what your neighbors are thinking. They are thinking, ‘Oh no. There’s a drug user in front of my house.’”

Then there was other advice particular to medical marijuana retailers: Don’t drive stoned, minimize the odor of marijuana in your shop, and be vigilant about litter around your business. Make sure customer parking doesn’t irk your neighbors.

“If you are a medical cannabis dispensary that blocks a driveway, you have a really big problem,” he said. “Little things like that can blow up in to a big problem.”

Ultimately, negative perceptions about a marijuana business can harm the larger goal of legalizing the drug for recreational use because it's what happens on the local level that spills into the larger debate about marijuana, Duncan said.

“It can sometimes come down to a single block or two that can influence the outcome, for good or bad, when it comes to the regulatory debate,” he said