Medical marijuana prescription vials are filled at a dispensary in Venice, Calif., in 2013. (Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press file)

Oregon recreational pot sales could start as soon as this fall

SALEM, Ore. — Retail sales of recreational marijuana would begin as soon as Oct. 1 in Oregon, far sooner than had been expected, under a bill approved Thursday by a state legislative committee.

The measure would allow early sales through existing medical marijuana dispensaries.

Under a law approved last year by voters, marijuana use and possession becomes legal July 1. But regulators say it may be almost a year before they start issuing retail licenses. Until then, users would have to grow their own, get it from a friend or buy it on the black market.

Advocates say allowing early sales will ensure a legal avenue to distribute a large amount of marijuana that’s expected from the fall harvest. Some lawmakers wanted to start sales even sooner than Oct. 1.

“To have the regulated system up and running earlier would be a better approach than allowing for a three-month period of individuals doing shoulder tapping or whatever they may do” to get marijuana, said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat who preferred to start sales July 1.

Medical marijuana dispensaries are regulated by the Oregon Health Authority, while recreational pot stores will eventually be under the auspices of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. The commission is developing plans for distributing licenses but can’t begin accepting applications until next year.

Local governments would be allowed to opt out of early sales through medical dispensaries with a vote of the city council or county commission. Once commission-licensed stores begin operating in the second half of 2016, the bar will be higher for local governments to opt out of marijuana sales.

Rep. Ken Helm said Oregonians will still be expected to get marijuana through legal means until it begins being sold through stores.

“We’re not giving the public a green light to go out and break the law,” said Helm, D-Beaverton. “We expect the existing laws to be followed by every citizen, even though we acknowledge that there’s some potential for law-breaking.”

Poll: Retail pot will be legal nationwide in 20 years, say 58% of U.S. adults

The measure, Senate Bill 460, was supported unanimously in committee heads to a vote in the Senate, likely next week.

Meanwhile, the House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to impose a sales tax of up to 20 percent on retail marijuana sales, replacing a tax on growers that was in the voter-approved Measure 91. Marijuana businesses said a sales tax would be easier to implement and to integrate with the untaxed medical marijuana program.

If both marijuana bills pass, Oregonians will get three months of tax-free shopping. Measure 91 didn’t contemplate retail sales before 2016, so the state isn’t allowed to start collecting taxes until January.


Online: SB 460