Steve Geiger, co-owner of Highway 420 in Seaside, has witnessed the slow, steady evolution of Oregon's marijuana laws firsthand.
In 2009, Geiger, then an environmental activist, began to attend National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) meetings. Medical marijuana was already legal in Oregon, but there were no dispensaries yet. Patients had to grow cannabis themselves or get someone else with a license to do it for them.
“I wanted to start a club like NORML had done, where medical marijuana card holders could show a card and come into our club and could consume their cannabis and just pay the membership fee," Geiger said.
Geiger opened the first incarnation of Highway 420 in Southeast Portland on Foster Road. It would become the first medical marijuana dispensary in the state. Then, “the feds threatened my landlord and we had to move.”
Highway 420 moved around a lot after that until Geiger landed in Seaside. After being shut down in his third location on the coast, “I spent the next three years going to City Council meetings, fighting them, trying to open back up again,” Geiger said. Highway 420 reopened in 2015 around the time recreational marijuana became legal in the state.
Now the marijuana business is booming throughout the Columbia-Pacific. Marijuana products racked up $520 million in sales in 2017 alone, $8 million of which was just in Clatsop County’s licensed dispensaries. As of January 2019, the state has taken in more than $173 million in taxes on marijuana sales since being legalized, with the haul dramatically increasing each fiscal year, according to the Oregon Department of Revenue. And this doesn't even account for local city and county taxes.
Besides funding schools, police and addiction services, once-blighted buildings become hubs of commerce and community when the open green palm of the cannabis leaf lands out front to say hello.
Similarly, Washington state has also experienced a green rush, with the state treasurer reporting a whopping $319 million collected in taxes and licensing fees in 2017 alone. This is $112 million more than the state took in on its hefty alcohol and tobacco taxes combined in the same year.
As if the grass couldn't get any greener, a recent report from Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which regulates the cannabis industry, shows that the state is growing twice as much dope as consumers can smoke. According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, this has resulted in a six-year surplus getting shelved and has plunged the price of a gram from $10 to south of $5 — perfect for the budget-conscious bud tourist.
And weary, weed-friendly visitors need not fear: From the Long Beach Peninsula's Freedom Market in Ilwaco to Manzanita's Oregon Coast Cannabis, the coast has many options for all of your flower, oils, vaping, edible and CBD needs. There are seven dispensaries in Astoria alone.
The green scene
Walking into a marijuana dispensary for the first time can feel a little illicit or intimidating. Many dispensaries have security foyers where your ID is checked before you are allowed into the showroom.
But Samantha Davidson, general manager of Portland-based Five Zero Trees, which has outposts in both downtown Astoria and Cannon Beach, assures potential customers there is no reason to be afraid.
“We want people to come in, ask questions and leave with the best possible product for them,” she said. “It’s okay to be a recreational customer and just say, ‘I want something fun.’ That’s okay too!”
Davidson left a job in social work a few years ago to join the cannabis industry, but she comes from a family with two generations of marijuana growers.
“We get lots of tourism, which is great. We get the cruise ships and the whale watchers. We get it all,” Davidson said. “The educational aspect is so fun because most of the out-of-towners — we get to inform them about the industry and the laws, and they have a lot of questions.”
Geiger agrees on the importance of customer service.
“A good budtender understands how to recommend things when someone asks for something,” he said. “I’m very lucky that everyone that works for me is in the family, and they have grown up with cannabis and know it really well. I feel really confident that if you come in and ask any one of the people who work for us questions, you are not going to get fake answers.”
Lucas Landry, manager at the newly opened Mr. Nice Guy on Bond Street, also sees the importance of out-of-towners in the coastal cannabis industry. While Mr. Nice Guy has a good local customer base at its two Astoria locations who are seeking well-priced bud, things really heat up during the coast’s fairer months.
“When the cruise ships come in,” Landry said. “It gets crazy around here.”
When he worked at Mr. Nice Guy’s Rockaway Beach location, tourists could sometimes swell his sales twofold in a single day.
“We’re here to help you, we’re here to educate you,” Landry said. “If you are looking for CBD products we have anything you could ask for.”
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a compound naturally found in cannabis along with THC. THC is what gets you stoned, while CBD is more of a relaxant and analgesic. Many popular products are now on the market that isolate or extract the CBD through a delivery system, like oils or even gummies. The market is booming and offers many more potential customers to the cannabis industry who don’t necessarily want to get high.
“CBD has had an astronomical growth. It’s an amazing thing to see,” Davidson said. “It went from being 5, 10 percent of the market. I think it has grown by something like 700 percent in two years.”
Davidson also noted a dramatic uptick in sales of cartridges used for vaping. But for now, flower is still king as consumers discover and learn other ways to get their needs met besides just smoking, which is something tourists should consider as most hotels and motels have zero-tolerance smoking-of-anything policies.
“Edibles,” she said. “If you are in your hotel room, you’re not smoking anything, and that’s perfectly legal.”