On November 13, a clot of journalists stands in a hailstorm outside a Portland, Oregon, business called Rumpspankers Beyond Broth. We're awaiting a press conference rechristening the business the Cannabis Café, the first restaurant where patients licensed by the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) can publicly use marijuana. The event is a half-hour late in starting.
Perhaps there's cleaning to do. Rumpspankers, a soup restaurant by day, was until recently an adult entertainment venue by night, hosting a bondage club and a monthly event called "Pants Off Dance Off."
Maybe those already inside—the café's owners, representatives from the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a guy carrying a raft of French pastries—don't hear the banging on the door.
Maybe, judging from the skunk smell that rolls out once the door is opened, everyone inside is too euphoric to realize what time it is.
"Welcome to freedom!" says Madeline Martinez, all good cheer as she finally presents the café, a cavernous room of dinged-up furniture and paper lanterns. As the executive director of Oregon NORML, Martinez previously hosted bimonthly socials for marijuana patients in the ballroom above Rumpspankers, but a seven-day-a-week place to congregate and medicate? That is her dream come true.
"We need a place like this because we are ostracized," says Martinez, a former California Corrections Department employee who says she uses marijuana to relieve the pain of degenerative disk and joint disease. "Our medicine is not accepted because it smells.…We want the opportunity to sit down and say, have you tried this kind [of pot]? It really works well for this symptom."
Relief isn't cheap. Customers must have an OMMP card ($100 application fee), be members of Oregon NORML ($35 and up), and buy a membership at the café itself ($240 a year, plus $5 at the door). This entitles them to buy coffee and goodies and to sample donated marijuana provided by NORML, which will also deal with any legal consequences, though the specter of arrest faded when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in October that federal prosecutors in the 13 states with medical marijuana programs will no longer go after pot dispensaries that comply with state law.
"The momentum has come to Oregon to the point where we can open this [café] and it's an accepted part of the community," says attorney John C. Lucy IV. "I think we would have gone forward whether the decision had come out of the Obama administration or not."
While the decision protects Oregon's 36,000 patients and caregivers who hold OMMP licenses and ostensibly get their pot at dispensaries, Oregon NORML thinks the state is ready for even more reform. It is gathering signatures to put the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act and the Oregon Cannabis Tolerance Act on the November 2010 ballot. Both will legalize the sale, possession, and private cultivation of marijuana for personal use, while the tax act aims to put money in state coffers by putting a levy on the sale of cannabis hemp products.
On the first day of business at the Cannabis Café, there are cookies for the volunteers, three-dozen of whom arrive in preparation for the 4:20 p.m. opening ("420" being slang for pot smoking). To comply with Oregon's ban on smoking in workplaces, there isn't supposed to be any smoking in the Cannabis Café, a rule belied by the appearance of several bongs and pipes. Officially, "bud-tenders" will dispense marijuana via vaporizers, which heat the plant matter to release THC and other cannabinoids instead of burning it. Martinez demonstrates how to use a Volcano vaporizer, packing the chamber with a strain called Blueberry she has grown herself.
Behind the bar, Rumpspankers owner Eric Solomon, wearing a grubby tent-sized T-shirt, tells his staff and the NORML volunteers, who all must have OMMP cards, to expect "at least a thousand people." While NORML runs the pot part of Cannabis Café, Solomon will profit from food and entertainment. The crowd breaks into applause when he announces he gave up his liquor license the day before, at the behest of inspectors concerned about having a place pushing both booze and pot.
Solomon, whose broth restaurant did not survive at a previous Portland location, is hoping to make more on pot than he did on soup and sex. "I've already booked cannabis weddings and cannabis karaoke," he says. "Everything mainstream society does, without the cannabis." He does not worry that his clientele will be limited to medical marijuana patients. "There are close to a million people in Oregon with qualifying diseases," says Solomon, a medical marijuana patient for what he says is the "pain, 24/7" of degenerative spinal disease. "You can have the slightest onset of glaucoma, and not even know it, and you qualify."
He hopes the Cannabis Café is a better fit for the neighborhood, where residents weren't crazy about the after-hours orgies and drunks peeing on their lawns. "People who medicate with marijuana don't drink and crash their cars, or think of robbing a bank to feed a habit," says Solomon, and then considers. "Well, they might think about it, but then they'd say, 'I'm going to make a sandwich now and think about it tomorrow.'?"
At precisely 4:20, the journalists are herded out and customers let in, five at a time, while perhaps 100 people wait in line on an outdoor stairwell. They wait a while. A business run exclusively by those who smoke pot for those who smoke pot has predictable lag times and confusions. "Just give me $60, and we'll worry about it later," says a NORML rep, unable to figure out what to charge for entry.
Solomon has described the medical marijuana patients who previously attended Rumpspankers/NORML socials as "people in wheelchairs" and people with "Stage 5 cancer," adding that "the average age is 55-plus." But those who show up on Cannabis Café's inaugural day seem relatively hale. A 20-year-old says he uses pot "because I tore a muscle in my hamstring." A 48-year-old woman with fibromyalgia is here as much for the social aspect as for pain relief. "It's really nice to know you're not alone," she says, smiling at a 39-year-old man with a pacemaker, who smiles back.
The only person not smiling is the one who appears the sickest. Outside, the hail has changed to rain, and at a table at the end of the stairwell sits a man, visibly ravaged by illness, thin and out of breath and leaning on a cane. He is looking at the line of people waiting to get in, nearly all of them young men, joking and laughing. Asked whether he wants some help up the stairs, he shakes his head, too weak to answer.
Nancy Rommelmann (email@example.com) is a Portland-based journalist.