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Oregon Retail Pot Sales Start October First…But Not Everywhere

Chris Lehman
Medical marijuana cardholders can select the product of their choice at the sales counter of Highway 30 Cannabis in La Grande, Oregon.

Starting next month, adults in Oregon will be able to walk into a medical marijuana dispensary and buy pot for recreational use. But not in dozens of communities across the state, where local officials have banned such sales.

Across the street from a KFC in La Grande, Oregon, you can buy marijuana - if you know where to look.

Rona Lindsey is the owner of Highway 30 Cannabis. The medical marijuana dispensary has been open just over a year. And despite the low-key storefront, she says business is brisk.

"There's no marijuana leaves, there's no any of that. We just have an open sign and a green cross in the window,” says Lindsey

Credit Chris Lehman
Rona Lindsey and employee Rikki Abercrombie stand outside Highway 30 Cannabis, a medical marijuana dispensary in La Grande, Oregon.

Lindsey was arrested along with her husband on drug charges in 2006 after police raided their home. All of those charges were dropped. Lindsey says the fact that the city allowed her to open a dispensary is a sign that her name was finally cleared. Still, she says she could reach even more customers if given the chance.

We get probably 40 phone calls a day and I don't know how many people walking in a day asking if they can come in and buy recreational,” she says.

But the answer to that question is "no." And it will stay "no" even after October 1. That is the date Oregon lawmakers set for medical marijuana dispensaries to be able to sell pot to recreational users, that is, to people without state-issued medical marijuana cards. But the legislature also gave towns the chance to opt out of recreational sales. And that is what the La Grande City Council did. They join more than two dozen other cities and counties around Oregon that have banned retail sales of recreational marijuana.

La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey says he agrees with that decision.

"When you do the commercial component of it, where you've got a store that is no different than a grocery store, you can walk in there and get your marijuana, what message does that send to your kids? And how much more does that put out onto the street?” said Harvey.

Harvey says the council's decision reflects the will of local voters. Union County voted 59 percent against last year's measure that legalized recreational marijuana in Oregon.

"We have a more conservative populace in eastern Oregon. I don't think that's lost on anyone,” he said.

La Grande resident Marie Balaban says she thinks city leaders will eventually change their minds.

"Well, I would expect that over time they'll change their opinion because of the income that that business would generate. And because in other places in the state it will be sold recreationally,” said Balaban.

Back at Highway 30 Cannabis, owner Rona Lindsey says those that want to purchase recreational marijuana will not have to travel far to find it.

"The nearest place is going to be on the street, is where they're going to go to get it. And where they are now purchasing it. If they're going to get it, they're going to get it, whether it's in a shop or in a street,” she said.

Lindsey says she thinks the real reason behind the ban on retail sales is that despite marijuana's legalization, there is still a stigma associated with the drug.

"They think everybody's going to be the reggae, with dreadnoughts, and smoking on the streets and all that stuff. But that's really not how it is,” she says.

And Lindsey herself doesn't fit the stereotype of someone who sells marijuana, either. When she is not overseeing her dispensary, Lindsey heads down to her day job: She's an administrative assistant at the Union County Chamber of Commerce.

Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.