Buying medical marijuana could become as routine as picking up a prescription for antibiotics at your nearby pharmacy.
One percent of Oregonians – nearly 40,000 – hold medical marijuana cards. And supporters of this growing movement say Oregon patients need a safer, more reliable and regulated way to get medical marijuana besides growing it themselves.
If voters sign off on Measure 74 this fall, Oregon will move one step closer to building an infrastructure to support medical marijuana, joining states such as Rhode Island, New Mexico and Maine that have created statewide dispensary systems.
Proponents say the measure would bring accountability and dignity to the process of receiving and dispensing marijuana. Skeptics, however, say the measure has too many loopholes, leaving room for abuse. Still others say it is a masked attempt to legalize marijuana rather than a genuine attempt to solve patient problems.
John Sajo, director of Voter Power and co-author of the initiative, said thousands of patients who can’t grow their own marijuana stand in lines at organizations such as his to receive medical marijuana donated by other patients. But some seek the drug illegally, he said, encouraging a black market enterprise.
“We do think the best chance for control is with reasonable regulation where people involved have an incentive to do the right thing,” Sajo said. “Not supporting Measure 74 won’t stop dispensaries. It will stop the regulation of dispensaries. We can have a dispensary system where hardworking people are rewarded or a system where risk-takers dominate.”
Dispensaries in infancy
Dispensaries may represent one step toward removing the stigma attached to medical marijuana, making securing the drug more like a business transaction than an undercover drug sale. But most dispensaries are still in their infancy.
The language of Measure 74 outlines the goals and objectives of dispensaries but directs state health agencies to create detailed rules about location, security and record keeping. Many states have struggled to create regulations to ensure that dispensaries don’t illegally sell marijuana to non-patients and that patients have access to marijuana but don’t then sell it to make money.
California approved dispensaries but didn’t create a statewide system, depending on city and county government to build those laws. Some municipalities, such as San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego and Sonoma County, created laws limiting on how much marijuana patients and dispensaries may grow.
Los Angeles was among cities that didn’t initially create those laws. Since 2007, more than 600 new medical marijuana dispensaries opened there. In January, Los Angeles city officials determined that there were too many, that some were too close to schools, playgrounds, churches and parks, and that they were attracting gangs and crime.
A new law limits the city to 70 dispensaries and requires that they be at least 1,000 feet from churches and schools.
“In the places where the laws are not defined clearly, dispensaries have sprung up informally,” said Jill Harris, managing director of public policy for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Los Angeles didn’t create any regulation. The lesson is that state regulation is better than a lack of regulation… Regulation means more control, not less.”
Oregon was among four states that approved the use of medical marijuana in 1998, joining front-runner California. And now, the state again finds itself part of a push for widespread changes to medical marijuana laws.
Maine and Rhode Island have approved dispensaries but are still getting them up and running. New Jersey and Washington D.C. are expected to approve regulations this fall that include dispensaries. New Mexico has the first and one of the only statewide licensing systems that’s already functioning. Critics of that system, which has approved few dispensaries, say the supply of medical marijuana is limited.
Under Oregon’s Measure 74, state-licensed dispensaries and producers would pay an initial fee of $1,000 to $2,000, and pay 10 percent of their gross income to the state.
Producers and dispensaries would initially be able to possess enough marijuana plants and usable marijuana for four people – 24 plants and 6 pounds of marijuana.
The measure doesn’t include a limit on the number of dispensaries, but directs the Oregon Health Authority to develop specific rules about dispensary locations, safety measures, inspections and penalties for breaking the rules. Initially, the measure would ban dispensaries from operating near schools or residential neighborhoods.
State officials estimate the dispensaries could generate additional revenue — from $400,000 to as much as $3 million or even $20 million annually. That would likely pay for the annual state costs of running the system — estimated to be as much as $600,000.
Opponents say Measure 74 say has too many unanswered questions and hidden costs.
The Oregon Medical Association, along with Oregon’s police chiefs and district attorney associations, opposes the measure. The groups say that without a state-imposed limit on the number of dispensaries, Oregon would have more marijuana than needed, encouraging illicit sale.
Andris Antoniskis, past president of the Oregon Medical Association and Oregon Society of Addiction Medicine, called the proposed law “seriously flawed.” He said it represents a public health risk and lacks sufficient standards for the quality of the marijuana being distributed.
Other groups have said that voters should be able to see the specifics of how the law would be implemented before approving the concept in a ballot measure.
Sajo said that in writing the initiative, he and others attempted to address all the concerns that had been raised by law enforcement and other groups. He said the measure allows for regulations that could address background checks, record keeping and quality control.
“We want to create more accountability, not less,” Sajo said. “We also didn’t want to tie the hands of the health department. So we’re leaving it to the state agency to develop the specific rules. It’s a standard way laws are made.”
Sajo pointed to the more than 90 pages of administrative rules that were created in Colorado to support its dispensary system.
Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin has been a longtime opponent of medical marijuana in Oregon. He says the measure would make law enforcers’ job more difficult. It would exempt marijuana growers and employees of dispensaries from prosecution if they are in substantial compliance with the state laws regarding growing and dispensing medical marijuana.
“If someone gets caught for selling or distributing outside the guidelines, is there a way to revoke the current license under their law? No,” said Bergin. “Is there a way to deal with people who are driving around medicated, stoned? This just adds to the drug cases we’re already working. It’s an unfunded mandate that will have massive impact.”
– Article from Oregon Live.