By Garrett Rudolph
Brie Malarkey doesn’t consider herself an activist.
Malarkey is a self-taught herbalist who’s been studying plant medicine for more than 10 years. She’s a college graduate and a savvy business woman, an organic farmer who oversaw 40 acres of cows, goats, pigs, herbs and vegetables.
She’s an educator, having home-schooled her teenage son until he recently enrolled in college. She’s a believer in the importance of knowing where your food comes from. She’s enthusiastic about hiring employees with more expertise than she has.
Activism had never really been part of her agenda.
But that changed quickly when she began the process of opening a state-licensed medical marijuana dispensary in Southern Oregon. She was surprised at how cannabis remained demonized, even more than a decade after Oregon legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. The message from a vocal minority of local residents was one of hatred and misguided fear.
“I was really shocked,” Malarkey said. “I personally don’t have a need to use medical marijuana. I don’t use the herb, but I believe in freedom of choice, and I believe that people who need it, need safe access.”
Her excitement and passion resonates in the rhythm of her speech.
Malarkey’s proposal to open a medical dispensary in Gold Hill sparked outcry, protests and a steady stream of misinformation from local residents. The picketing was not just directed at her, but also her customers and the elected City Council members who supported the opening of Breeze Botanicals.
In June of 2014, opponents of the dispensary launched an effort to recall the four council members who supported the ordinance allowing medical marijuana retailers within city limits. Deb West, a member of the Gold Hill budget committee, spearheaded the recall campaign.
“This could have been so simple. All they had to do was put this to a vote of the people, and they chose not to,” West told the Medford Tribune.
“They made all kinds of excuses as to why the people should not have a voice in this. And that’s what brought this recall to the forefront,” she said.
The harsh opposition solidified Malarkey’s stance.
“I had no idea there would be that kind of animosity, and it’s no wonder the white collar crowd remains in the closet about cannabis, because of all this judgment and ridicule,” Malarkey said. “It made me want to fight even harder.”
The recall effort fell flat.
Each of the four council members survived the special recall election, which cost the city of Gold Hill about $1,500. In each case, about 60% percent of the voters stood by the council members.
Building the business
It’s been nearly a year since Breeze Botanicals opened amid controversy in Gold Hill.
Malarkey opened Breeze Botanicals’ second dispensary in Ashland in February 2015, and she’s been able to double her efforts to support the local economy by focusing on a variety of herbs grown sustainably and organically in the Rogue Valley.
She puts a heavy emphasis on helping people, even as she prepares for the uncertainty of Oregon’s Measure 91 rollout.
One of the big surprises she’s had since opening Breeze Botanicals is the number of people that have tried to come in without medical cards. Within her first month of being open, she said she had to turn away women who were suffering from Stage 4 breast cancer because their oncologist refused to issue them a medical authorization. Even for people with qualifying conditions, it’s not uncommon for a wait of at least six weeks to get a medical card, Malarkey said.
Breeze Botanicals’ number one demographic is 65- to 75-year-old women, often with their husbands as caregivers, Malarkey said. The implementation of Measure 91, the voter-approved law that legalizes marijuana for recreational purposes, will give her the “freedom to help anybody who wants medical access,” Malarkey said. “As a healer, I want anybody to be able to come in and make a decision about their own body.”
However, marijuana legalization continues to face the same roadblocks as it has for years, despite substantial support from the voting public. Malarkey called it a statewide version of what she went through last summer, when hysteria and opposition produced the loudest voices.
The League of Oregon Cities and the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association have both taken prohibitionist stances in regards to Measure 91, and there’s plenty of discussion about how municipalities and law enforcement agencies could potentially undermine the program.
Joe McLaren, manager of the Ashland store, said he expects Measure 91 to have a positive impact on the state.
“Measure 91, I see as a bonus,” he said. “It’s a really good opportunity for people that don’t have a medical card.”
The biggest question marks he sees include whether or not the Legislature will allow dispensaries to have both recreational and medical licenses, and whether or not the rules put in place help create a viable system for the recreational market.
“I see it as a win-win situation for Oregon in general,” McLaren said.
Malarkey said she fears a short-sighted approach and heavy-handed regulations could choke off Oregon’s legal cannabis industry before it’s ever allowed to leave the black market.
Southern Oregon is well-known for its skilled, artisan growers that have oftentimes spent decades honing their craft. The questions are if and how they will integrate with a commercial market. Malarkey said she’s worries state legislators might bow to special interest groups that want to exploit Oregon’s existing industry and might not consider environmental impacts such as indoor growing and nutrient run-off.
“I really implore legislators, as they develop policy, to think about the Oregon economy,” she said. “We are known for our micro-creameries, micro-distilleries, our wonderful, craft artisan beer-makers, and we can add cannabis to that mix and we can have a wonderful cannabis product that may, eventually, someday, be a viable export product.”
With that said, she recognizes the challenge of establishing a balanced market, calling it a “Goldilocks” situation — the amount of cannabis produced by Oregon has to be just right.
If Oregon produces too much marijuana, prices will fall and it will be exported illegally to other states. If the state doesn’t produce enough, the laws of supply and demand will force the prices up and allow the black market to thrive.
“It’s not like the wine industry or the grass seed industry that are thriving in Oregon,” she said, pointing to industries that can legally be shipped out of state and have flourished as export products.
As an organic farmer herself, Malarkey puts a heavy emphasis on healthy and sustainable growing practices.
Breeze Botanicals is the retail arm of Malarkey’s business scope (www.sunbreezeinc.com), which also includes Sunna Ra Acres in Shady Cove and Sun God Medicinals in Gold Hill.
Sunna Ra Acres was originally founded in 2012 to focus on sustainable food production, but has shifted somewhat more recently toward raw milk, heritage pork, free-range eggs and herbs. Among the herbs it produces are hops, peppermint, spearmint, anise, echinacea and chamomile, as well as cannabis.
Sun God Medicinals is nearing its one-year anniversary as a producer of herbal teas, tinctures, topicals, edibles and extracts — both with and without cannabis — that are geared toward addressing specific symptom relief, such as pain or sleeplessness.
“Marijuana’s been the star, and is still kind of being the star, but people are forgetting other vital herbs that can go right along with and deserve some spotlight too,” McLaren said.
In addition to the products of its sister companies, Breeze Botanicals will also buy traditional herbs directly from farms or wholesalers if they are certified organic. When it comes to cannabis, Malarkey puts growers through a rigorous vetting process before allowing their product to be sold in her stores.
That process includes face-to-face meetings with the growers, who must also sign a contract that gives Breeze Botanicals the right to audit their facility to make sure they’re growing sustainably. The application covers everything from the amendments that were used to the type of music that was played in the garden. Once suppliers have gone through the extensive vetting process, it tends to create longer-lasting relationships and a level of confidence between the grower and the dispensary that benefit the consumers.
Breeze Botanicals takes a somewhat unique, holistic approach to herbal medicine that goes beyond cannabis. In addition to medical marijuana, the two stores each feature more than 40 different herbs that are cultivated and wildcrafted in Southern Oregon for different purposes.
Breeze Botanicals also has a local food and art boutique that is open to the general public, with or without a medical marijuana card. Shoppers can enjoy local treats, handmade jewelry, herbal teas, handcrafted soaps, local honey and more.
Malarkey also puts each batch of cannabis through lab testing that goes above and beyond state-requirements, she said. She examines the terpene and cannabinoid profiles so consumers can be better educated about what they’re buying.
“I really wanted to go beyond the strain name,” Malarkey said, pointing out that stressors, individual climates, growing techniques and terroir can all affect the final product. “One man’s Sour Diesel is not another man’s Sour Diesel.”
That educational process is key for the success of Breeze Botanicals, McLaren said.
“We’re really trying hard to make that difference in the dispensary and make it way more professional and more comfortable,” McLaren said.
“People can actually feel they are getting the right information and not just being sold pot.”