By Elon Glucklich

The Bulletin

Jeremy Kwit’s clients come to his Bend business from Redmond, Madras, La Pine, Culver, even as far as Burns and Ontario.

Living in towns without medical marijuana dispensaries, or with one-year bans on them, people are driving to Bend, home to Oregon’s largest cluster of legal pot clinics outside Portland. Kwit owns Bloom Well, on Northeast Division Street in Bend. As of Friday, it was one of eight legal marijuana dispensaries in the city, state figures show.

The new state registry aims to separate legitimate clinics from ones that don’t meet safety standards, or could be fronts for illegal drug sales. Some clinics have been operating since the late 1990s, but the registry means dispensaries without a license will have to shut down or face possible criminal charges.

Only Portland, with 27 clinics, has more than Bend, though clinics can keep their name off the state’s registry .

Eugene and Salem each have seven, and 35 Eugene clinics sent in applications, versus 17 in Bend.

So while Bend’s reign as the No. 2 medical pot destination may be short-lived, the city’s hands-off stance on legal weed is the exact opposite approach taken by every other city on the High Desert. No other clinics operate legally in Deschutes, Crook or Jefferson counties.

In fact, of the 335 applications sent in to the state, just 12 came from counties whose entire boundaries lie east of Interstate 5, excluding Deschutes County. Just one — in Hermiston — has been approved.

“We’re seeing folks driving from hours away,” Kwit said last week. “There’s just a steady stream of new clients coming into the facility because they’re able to safely access medical cannabis for the first time.”

Treating medical conditions or chronic pain with marijuana has been legal in the state for more than 15 years. But the marijuana landscape took a huge step forward March 3. For the first time, Oregon began issuing licenses to clinics that comply with the state’s 31-page rulebook, and paid hefty application fees.

People can’t just walk in and leave with a bag of pot. A licensed doctor has to diagnose patients with a health problem before they can apply for a medical marijuana card.

But, like Bloom Well, the owners of Cannabend on U.S. Highway 97 say patients are heading to their store from as far as the Oregon-Idaho border.

Business started slow when the clinic opened in February, co-owner Tyler Coppinger said. But since getting its state license in March, Cannabend has seen its client base boom to about 400 patients.

“People are coming from all over the state,” Coppinger said. “It’s unfortunate they have to drive so far in order to get their medications.”

Clinics face denial

The patient rolls at Bloom Well and Cannabend have ballooned since they received state licenses in March. But some other Bend dispensary owners have had a tougher go.

Nick Harsell found out last month his application for a dispensary was denied. The state determined his clinic, High Grade Organics, was fewer than 1,000 feet from another clinic, Garden Kings, which submitted its application just minutes sooner. Clinics can’t operate within 1,000 feet of a school or another clinic.

Garden Kings has been licensed to operate on Northeast Franklin Avenue, about two blocks from the space Harsell leased on Third Street.

The denial has Harsell crying foul. He said the state should weigh each clinic based on its quality, and the effort by owners to go beyond the basic state requirements.

“The whole application process is terrible,” he said Thursday. “What the Oregon Health Authority (the agency regulating dispensaries) is doing is very bad, it’s all about who clicked the (apply) button first, not comparing applications.”

Qualified applications are approved in the order the state receives them, Health Authority officials acknowledge. They said the legal gray area clinics have operated under since medical pot became legal gave them few other options.

“There were a number of these businesses, a couple hundred, that were already operating” before March, Karynn Fish, a Health Authority spokeswoman, said Friday. “There were also a number of individuals waiting for (dispensaries) to be legal before opening a business. The state was faced with the challenge of, ‘Do we give preference to businesses that were already open but were actually operating outside the law?’”

On March 3, the first day clinics could apply for legal status, the state received 281 applications. Of those, 242 were filed between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., the first hour the state’s online application opened.

Oregon’s medical marijuana laws give Harsell the right to appeal his denial and request a hearing. But “The appeal is going to need to be based on the facts of the case, not an opinion,” Fish said. As to the legal status around clinics without a license, “The gray area is gone.”

In the meantime, Harsell has closed High Grade Organics, and is looking around Bend for a new place to set up shop. He considers the thousands of dollars he spent to remodel a former dentist’s office on Third Street gone for good.

“It’s very sad how (the state is) going about this process,” Harsell said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7820,