PORTLAND, Oregon – At the newly opened Cannabis Cafe, people sit around taking tokes from a "vaporizer" —7 a contraption with a big plastic bag that captures the potent vapors of heated marijuana. Glass jars hold donations of dried, milky-green weed, and the cafe serves up meals and snacks for the hungry.
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, bringing a little bit of pot-friendly Amsterdam to this working class corner of Portland.
Oregon became the second state to pass a marijuana law in 1998, following California. There are nearly 24,000 patients with medical marijuana cards in Oregon. Only state residents can obtain the card after registering as a patient in the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program with a qualifying debilitating medical condition diagnosed by a doctor.
Even though they have a card, medical marijuana patients have had to confine their smoking to their homes for fear of getting busted.
"We have no place of our own. So this is the place," said Madeline Martinez, executive director of the Oregon chapter of NORML, which operates and monitors the cafe.
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.
Portland police have not received any complaints about the cafe and it is not under any special scrutiny, officials said.
Jan Clutter lives about a block from the cafe and knows the owners well. She said many neighbors would probably prefer it was somewhere else, but there has been no push to have it moved. For some, things could be worse than having a pot cafe.
"It's better than having a sex club, a strip joint or a bar full of drunks open down the street," neighbor Claudia Nix said.
Volunteers gave a reporter and a photographer a tour of the cafe. No marijuana is sold in the cafe. Patients bring marijuana grown by themselves or by their designated caregivers. They also donate marijuana for other patrons to use. The cafe has a pool table and comfy couches.
Martinez demonstrated the "Volcano," a vaporizer that collects marijuana fumes into a clear plastic pouch with a valve that releases the fumes for patients to inhale.
People who want to use marijuana at the cafe can't get inside until Martinez or other NORML members check their IDs to make sure they are patients registered with the state. The patients also have to be a member of Oregon NORML to use the cafe, pay a $20 a month fee, and a $5 coverage charge at the door. The money goes toward operating costs.
In another part of the city is Highway 420 — a number pot users have used as code for marijuana — a small lounge in the back room of Steve Geiger's pipe shop. Rules for using the lounge are similar to those at the Cannabis Cafe. Geiger opened it in late October. Eight to 10 people come in on a given day. People sit around, talk and watch TV while smoking marijuana.
Geiger said it's only fair for medical marijuana users to have a place where they can socialize and use their medicine.
"The truth is that nobody that takes medication every day would be told you have to take that at home," said Geiger, who spent about 30 years working with computers before opening the shop.
One of the state's staunchest law-and-order figures — Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance President Kevin Mannix — said he wishes there had been more public discussion about the cafe before it opened. He worries Oregon's law could be stretched beyond the original purpose of personal use for relief from disease or chronic pain, and said lawmakers need to weigh in before more cafes open.
"I'm not going to cast judgment on whether or not there should be a cafe," Mannix said. "But I do think legislative policy makers need to take a good hard look at where we are headed."
St. Pierre, the national NORML spokesman, argued that the Cannabis Cafe and the Highway 420 lounge show that medical marijuana can be part of neighborhood community life.
"I can tell you had they done this three years ago, they'd be gone," he said. "If they'd done it 10 years ago, there would be yellow tape around them. If they'd done this 20 years ago, they might have gone in there with guns blazing."
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