The NORML Cannabis Café opened at 4:20pm for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has ever known anyone who has ever smoked marijuana, ever. Portland Police stopped by and checked the place out. Finding no legitimate reason to arrest anyone, they left and gave the party their blessing.
The front door was blockaded by steel bars. A sign read, "Cannabis Café, enter in back." A dark tunnel ran down the side of the building. The sky was blotted out by a sagging green tarp. We walked up some sketchy concrete stairs. "This seems really dangerous," a man said on his way out.
At the top of the stairs we walked through a door. The room was filled with NORML volunteers. A bouncer (if a 130 pound man with dreadlocks can be given such a title) asked for our papers: Oregon Driver's License, laminated NORML membership card, and our Oregon Medical Marijuana Permits. We paid $20 for a monthly membership and $5 for our daily cover before we were in. One of the first things I heard anybody say was, "isn't freedom wonderful?"
We walked down another set of sketchy stairs inside to reach the café. Through a thick haze we saw roughly fifty people smoking, vaporizing, or eating marijuana. If the place reminded me of anywhere, it would be the Mos Eisley café in Star Wars. It was more of a bar, minus alcohol, than a café. Somehow they'd even crammed in the obligatory pool table. There were plenty of chairs to sit in.
Confusion set in at the bar. My wife and I weren't sure what we were supposed to do. No signs were there to help us. Someone said, "Everyone's willing to share, just ask!" In Oregon it is illegal to charge for medical marijuana. That is why California has dispensaries and we do not. NORML runs the café almost like a charity--after paying the membership fees, you are given free marijuana handed out by unpaid volunteers. We purchased a small water pipe and "ordered" a blueberry strain. It was delicious. Someone passed me a balloon from one of the Volcano vaporizers and I greedily inhaled until it was nearly empty.
We moved away from the bar and found a table by ourselves. Immediately, someone insisted that we join theirs. So we did. A joint the size of a two-liter soda bottle was passed around. I puffed, puffed, then passed, feeling like some ridiculous extra in a Cheech & Chong film. The blunt was coated in slobber. I had just gotten over a case of the Swine Flu and was feeling uncharacteristically germophobic. Yes, this café was communal in spirit and sharing was encouraged. I have no problem sharing my marijuana, but when it comes to germs I prefer to be a little more selfish, and ask the same of others. But everyone wanted to try our new water pipe. It sold out in minutes. It really is quite remarkable, a tiny bong that fits in the palm of your hand for $20. After my water pipe got passed to a man that looked as if he might be dying of Tuberculosis, I decided to give it a rest. As he coughed and sputtered, his face shiny with sweat, I quietly slipped it behind my wife's purse where no one could see it. I may have saved lives.
We had a few conversations. It took about ten minutes before I felt too high to talk to anyone. Still, joints and pipes and Volcano balloons were passed to me and I never turned one down. If pot were as dangerous as our DARE officers claimed, I wouldn't be alive right now to type this. All the outgoing people were beginning to freak me out a little. We had nothing in common other than the fact that we were where we were, doing what we were doing. I became intensely aware of how weird I must look, sitting there unable to do anything but stare and sometimes nod my head and laugh at inappropriate times. Weed is not a social drug for most people, and I am most people. The die-hards in the café were genetic freaks. The more they smoked, the more they talked. I found that incredible. I just wanted to eat some hot wings and go to bed.
There was one restroom and it was a long wait. An older woman walked out after vomiting. I had to hold my breath while I urinated. This was the least sterile medical environment on the planet. But that's not what the place is. Not really. As often as I heard the verb "medicating" instead of "smoking", this was an environment built for socializing. A bar for people who don't want to use a dangerous drug like alcohol.
I came across an explanation for everyone's extreme hospitality--earlier in the day, most of the people who showed up left without entering. They suffered from sticker shock and a case of "what's the point of all of this?" I have to admit that I share that opinion, despite the best efforts of the very friendly die-hards inside. It's expensive to smoke at the café but it's free to smoke at home with friends. For the NORML cannabis café to succeed, it will need to come up with a sustainable business model and offer something more than the allure of smoking in front of other smokers behind closed curtains.
The Cannabis Café opened November 13, 2009 and is the first cannabis café to open in the U.S. It's located at 700 NE Dekum, Portland, Oregon. For more information, call 503-283-1100. Sketchy Justin is a Portland writer and medical marijuana patient. He can be reached at