Membership fees could threaten Oregon pot clubs

A Portland-area medical marijuana club got busted primarily for charging street prices for a product that is supposed to be donated from grower to patient. But membership fees required by the Wake ‘n Bake Cannabis Lounge were also singled out by prosecutors, and that has other clubs worried they could be next.

The owner of Wake ‘n Bake pleaded guilty to two counts of distribution of marijuana last week. An undercover Washington County Sheriff’s Office investigation used a hidden camera to film a whiteboard listing prices for different strains — charging up to $180 an ounce.

During plea negotiations, prosecutors maintained that membership fees charged by the club in Aloha were also a violation of the law, a part of the umbrella “distribution of a controlled substance” charges filed against club owner Kathleen Cambron, who was sentenced to probation.

Some Oregon law enforcement officers argue that charging membership fees to belong to a medical marijuana club is the equivalent of selling the drug, and say more busts like this one are likely to come.

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Clatsop County Sheriff Thomas Bergin, president of the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association.

Bergin said time and resources are the only obstacles to shutting down more cannabis clubs and he doesn’t mind using the membership fees as a springboard.

“I’d like to see them all shut down today. We’ll get there,” Bergin said.

Under Oregon law, growers are allowed to charge their patients for the costs of cultivating pot but not for anything else. Those who operate cannabis clubs, such as Don Morse of Portland’s Human Collective, charge membership fees to help them pay for overhead and expenses unrelated to marijuana.

“The only way for us to pay the rent, pay the phone bill, is to charge a membership fee,” Morse said. “That’s how we can survive. We’re all volunteers. How do they expect us to be able to provide safe access (to marijuana) if we’re not able to pay our bills?”

Now, Oregon cannabis club owners are worried the Wake ‘n Bake case could prompt further crackdowns on operations that charge membership fees.

“It is a concern,” said Curtis Shimmin of the cannabis club Kannabosm in Eugene, who maintained that his operation was within the law. “Our program has been picked apart by several attorneys, and they have all assured me that what I am doing is 100 percent legal within state guidelines.”

Morse, of Human Collective, is critical of operations that are out to make money from Oregon’s medical marijuana law rather than help holders of medical marijuana cards.

“You’re not helping us, you’re hurting us,” he said.

Last year Oregon voters rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized California-style dispensaries in Oregon. Bergin and others in law enforcement argue that cannabis clubs are in fact dispensaries.

“They’re acting like it did pass,” said Bergin. “(The ballot measure) was to start up these dispensaries, it failed, and they started them anyway.”

Cannabis club owners say their properties aren’t dispensaries but safe havens for cannabis users to obtain and use the medicine they would otherwise have to grow themselves, have grown for them or buy on the black market. Marijuana available at cannabis clubs often comes from authorized growers who donate it.

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