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Out of the Shadows: An Emerging Cannabis Industry Seeks Respectability

The Oregon Health Authority is accepting license applications for the first state-sanctioned medical marijuana dispensaries. The law’s supporters hope to assure patients safe access to their medicine. But as a rapidly-expanding list of states allows medical marijuana – and with Washington and Colorado legalizing recreational use of pot – a growing cohort of entrepreneurs hears opportunity knocking.

The gathering at the upscale Ashland Springs Hotel looks like every business conference you’ve ever been to. In the lobby, attendees signing in and getting their ID badges and programs. Clusters of people in business attire, shaking hands and talking shop. Exhibitors in booths, showing off their goods and services. But a quick look around the first-ever Oregon Medical Marijuana Conference tips you off that this isn’t your standard gathering of dentists or real estate agents.

Rowshan Reordan: “I’m with Green Leaf Lab. We’re a medical cannabis testing laboratory.”

Rowshan Reordan owns the Portland-based business. She’s standing near a display that illustrates the services her lab offers.

Rowshan Reordan: “We test for pesticides, microbiological screens and potency for cannabis and cannabis processed products.”

Oregon’s new medical marijuana dispensary law mandates testing for purity and potency. With hundreds of new dispensaries expected to open over the next few years, Reordan thinks she’s well-positioned to prosper as part of what the 200-plus attendees at this conference see as an industry whose time has come.

Troy Dayton: “This is the fastest growing industry in America.”

That’s Troy Dayton, CEO of the ArcView Group, and the keynote speaker at this conference. His San Francisco-based firm does market research on legal marijuana, and he’s definitely bullish on its prospects.

Troy Dayton: In 2013 this was a 1.5 billion dollar industry. This is the legal cannabis market. In 2014 it’ll grow to 2.6 billion dollars a year. That’s a 68 percent increase. You cannot find another industry in the US that’s growing at a faster clip.”

Dayton’s firm also acts as a kind of dating service, putting aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs together with investors.

Troy Dayton: “Most investors, they want to invest in something they know really well, or with somebody who has a track record of delivering great returns for investors. Well, this industry has neither of those, in most cases.”

By gathering market data and fostering relationships between investors and business owners, Dayton says his firm hopes to overcome that chicken/egg dilemma and help capitalize the new industry … One big selling point for bringing marijuana out of the shadows is the economic benefits of regulating and taxing the massively lucrative trade. Anthony Johnson heads the Oregon Cannabis Industry Association, a newly-formed trade group. Johnson says by making medical marijuana available in storefront dispensaries, the state will gain more than just safe access for patients.

Anthony Johnson: “We’re going to be creating jobs, and spending less money and resources building prisons. We’re going to better prioritize law enforcement, and have more money for the education and social services the state needs.”

Johnson acknowledges that the mainstream business community may not greet the fledgling industry with open arms. Already a number of local jurisdictions, including Medford, Coos Bay and Josephine County, have said they won’t issue business licenses to dispensaries. Johnson says the industry will need to do a lot of hand-holding to get past what he sees as misconceptions and prejudices.

Anthony Johnson: “First, you want to listen to them and understand where they’re coming from and not want to be so bombastic, like, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that. First listen to their concerns and then you’re in a position to address those concerns.”

For instance, Johnson says, dispensary owners should be open to further restrictions on where, when and how they operate in certain towns. Johnson also recognizes there is among some of the new cannabis entrepreneurs an element of outlaw culture that comes from decades of prohibition. He’s confident they can be persuaded to play by the new rules.

Anthony Johnson: “Not only is there is plenty of money to be made in a regulated market, but also there is security and peace of mind of not having to think that you may be raided the next day or any day and always have that kind of fear.”

Still, Johnson says, part of becoming a legitimate industry is the willingness to set professional standards and to turn in bad operators who violate them. State Representative Peter Buckley agrees. Buckley was a co-sponsor of the new dispensary law, and carefully shepherded it through a somewhat reluctant legislature. It’s taken decades to reach the point where society has been willing to give marijuana a chance, he says. And the biggest threat to that newfound freedom would be for industry players to get greedy.

Peter Buckley: “If they step over the line, we have to go after them, because it’s absolutely essential that this industry even reach a higher standard than most industries.”

Like nearly everyone I spoke to at this conference, Buckley sees full legalization of pot as more or less inevitable. He predicts either a bill from the legislature or a citizen ballot measure is likely to come forward in the next couple of years ... ArcView CEO Troy Dayton believes the key to that future lies in the hands of the new cannabis business owners.

Troy Dayton: “If we build a responsible, credible, politically-engaged and profitable cannabis industry, that will be the biggest single factor that’s going to bring about the day when not a single adult is punished for this plant.”

Whether that vision comes to pass or not may ultimately depend on whether the states can influence the federal government, which still lists marijuana among the most dangerous illegal drugs.

Copyright 2014 Jefferson Public Radio.

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