At first glance, the Cannabis Cafe, in a former adult club called Rumpspankers, looks like any other coffee shop. Customers sip coffee while playing cards, working on computers, or sharing a meal.
But here, patrons also slip away to smoke joints and pipes in the back. And the cafe features a vapor bar, where customers can get the benefits of cannabis without the harmful carcinogens.
The Cannabis Cafe is the nation's first medical marijuana smoking lounge. It's all perfectly legal and, for cancer patient Albert Santistevan, it's about time.
"It's a very positive atmosphere. We could use more places like that," the 56-year-old former jewelry shop owner said.
A few weeks ago, Santistevan would have had no place to go. But with the Obama administration's decision last month to soften the federal stance on medical marijuana, the Cannabis Cafe and a lounge across town popped up early this month.
The idea could catch on in the roughly dozen other states with medical marijuana laws. Allen St. Pierre, spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, said the organization has already gotten inquiries from Washington state, Michigan, Montana and Maine.
"It's nice to be around people who understand your medicine," said Madeline Martinez, executive director of the Oregon chapter of NORML. "Many times we're deemed as criminals rather than patients."
Fourteen states, including Oregon, allow cannabis to be cultivated and used for medical reasons, according to NORML. Maine this month became the fifth state to allow retail pot dispensaries, joining California, Colorado, New Mexico and Rhode Island, according to NORML.But NORML officials say only Oregon has a place where any medical marijuana cardholder can socialize and use free, over-the-counter cannabis, which is dispensed by what the café calls "budtenders."
"It really is a revolutionary model in that the cannabis isn't being bought and sold," said Russ Belville of Portland, who is national outreach coordinator for NORML. "This is the only place I can think of in the world where the cannabis is free." Oregon law prohibits the sale of marijuana, although it can be exchanged among medical marijuana card holders.
To get a state card, residents need a doctor's statement certifying that they have a qualifying debilitating medical condition, such as cancer, glaucoma or muscle spasms.
Jim Hickam, a 58-year-old small business owner from Independence, Ore., was among the crowd at the opening.
"It's really a nice place to hang out. It's real mellow," he said.
Hickam got an Oregon medical marijuana card after a back injury left him dependent on painkillers. He said he's now off prescription drugs and able to work again.
About 23,900 Oregonians hold medical marijuana cards; 88% cited severe pain as a qualifying condition, the state reported last month.Martinez said she's been working for years to bring a smoking lounge to the state.
The group chose Portland, she said, because the city's mayor and police chief signed an executive order in 2007 prohibiting police assistance with investigations or prosecutions of people acting under the state's medical marijuana act. Federal law still prohibits growing, possessing, distributing and smoking marijuana.
Eric Solomon, who owned Rumpspankers, still owns the new cafe, while the cannabis exchange is operated by the state's chapter of NORML. In addition to a supportive environment, the cafe provides seeds, cuttings and education, Martinez said. "When you get your (state medical marijuana) card in the mail, you get this list of all the things you can't do," she said. "There's no information about how to begin to use marijuana. You're left on your own."
NORML members pay $20 a month plus $5 per visit to use the cafe, which is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It's only open to registered medical marijuana patients, growers and caregivers who also belong to NORML.
So far, the concept has been a hit, organizers say and there has been no community protest. The 100-seat cafe opened at 4:20 p.m. Nov. 13, and about 300 people came through that night. Many brought donations of marijuana. "The cafe on its opening day ended up with more marijuana at the end of the day than at the beginning," Belville said.
"There's been no change of law here. Just a change in interpretation of the law," said St. Pierre.
There are no plans for more pot cafés in Oregon at this point, NORML officials said, although a "head shop" in Portland opened a back room as a smoking lounge last month. But St. Pierre says the cafe's opening may signal a turning point for supporters of legalization.
"This seems to be the zeitgeist year for marijuana reform," he said.
November 23, 2009