The Oregon Legislature during the session that concluded earlier this month moved to bring the production of medical marijuana under greater control while also giving medical advocates reason to believe the program, established in Oregon almost 20 years ago, still has a future.
The legalization of adult-use, or recreational, marijuana under Measure 91 in 2014 and the opening of recreational marijuana retail shops has reduced the presence of strictly medical-marijuana dispensaries to an afterthought. During the 1¼-year-long transition to a legal business environment in which anyone 21 or older could purchase cannabis, the only ready sources were medical dispensaries.
Seventeen medical marijuana dispensaries existed in Bend before the Dec. 31, 2016, deadline to choose a side — medical or recreational. Today, no strictly medical marijuana dispensaries are left in Bend, where 20 recreational retailers are in business. However, 16 of those 20 retailers, licensed by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, carry higher potency, medical-grade cannabis products available only to medical program cardholders.
“The last three years were a work in progress,” said Donald Morse, director of the Oregon Cannabis Business Council. “We went into the (2017) session with bills looking to merge the two (recreational and medical), … but there was tremendous pushback.”
Cannabis business interests won about half of what they wanted during the session, he said. Although advocates for medical marijuana scored significant gains, Morse said time is not on their side.
“On the business end of things, we’re going to have to let market forces take effect and force the merger of the systems,” he said.
On the other side, Anthony Taylor, president of Compassionate Oregon, a nonprofit advocacy group for medical marijuana, said the Legislature, while moving to bring medical marijuana growers into the regulatory fold, also sidestepped the move to redefine medical marijuana out of existence.
“We with the other stakeholders stopped the effort to commingle recreational with medical,” he said Wednesday. “Not only stopped it but created an Oregon Cannabis Commission to take over the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.”
House Bill 2198, passed by the Legislature and under legal review and awaiting Gov. Kate Brown’s signature, creates the Oregon Cannabis Commission within the Oregon Health Authority, the state agency with oversight of medical marijuana. The commission must report to the Legislature about the future of the medical marijuana program and its governing framework by Dec. 15.
The eight-member commission is to be compposed of a physician, an OHA representative, an OLCC representative, a medical marijuana program cardholder, a medical marijuana grower, a local health officer, a law enforcement officer and a grant writer. The commission is charged with making recommendations about the medical program and providing guidance to the OHA. Rather than phasing medical marijuana out of existence, the commission is charged with making sure it survives, Taylor said.
“They’re putting together a long-term strategic plan to make sure cannabis remains a viable therapeutic option and affordable,” he said. “These are two distinct programs with distinct needs. To the recreational user, it doesn’t matter if a medical strain isn’t available in the dispensary.”
HB 2198 provides an incentive for medical marijuana growers to get into the OLCC system by allowing them to sell up to 20 pounds of cannabis through the recreational system. It limits to six the number of plants a medical marijuana patient may grow, with a limit of 12 at one address. It prohibits the OLCC or OHA from requiring growers to have the kind of security systems required of recreational growers.
The OLCC, which tracks marijuana and marijuana products and licenses those who handle the drug until it’s sold to a consumer, is basically a law enforcement agency, Taylor said. It isn’t concerned with advocating for medical marijuana patients, he said, but neither is the OHA.
“The OHA is MIA (missing in action) for patients,” he said. “This cannabis commission will preserve that (patient’s) voice. It’s the first time the OHA or anybody has been required to report back on this program.”
The OHA licenses dispensaries and issues cards to medical marijuana users, but medical marijuana growers were not subject to many of the regulations imposed on recreational cannabis businesses licensed by the OLCC. Senate Bill 1057, signed into law by Brown on May 30, changed that by requiring medical marijuana growers with more than 12 plants to register with the online seed-to-sale tracking system. Other provisions give the OLCC greater regulatory authority and increase the number of commissioners from five to seven, with one new member each from Eastern and Western Oregon.
SB 1057 was meant to bring the state into clear compliance with the Cole Memo, guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Justice during the Obama administration that give states with legal marijuana a way forward without bringing a federal clampdown. Marijuana is defined as an illegal drug under federal law.
Medical marijuana until this legislative session was not closely tracked, and growers of medical marijuana are widely considered as sources of cannabis diverted into the black market. But that notion is a myth, Taylor said.
“Diversion is not a state problem,” he said. “It’s a national problem, and until this country legalizes marijuana across the county, it will still exist.”
The spokesman for the OLCC Recreational Marijuana Program, Mark Pettinger, said laws passed this year should give the state a better handle on medical marijuana.
“That’s not to suggest there still isn’t going to be diversion,” he said Thursday. “But by wrangling all of these growers, it allows both our agency and the OHA to be a little more determined in figuring out who is growing, where they’re growing and how much they’re growing. This allows for a determination that will be much more precise and less elusive that it has been up until now.”
In addition to expanding and refining the OLCC authority over cannabis, the Legislature gave the agency money to hire 22 more permanent employees, including one additional inspector in Bend for a total of two. The Bend office will have two investigators and two inspectors dedicated to marijuana licensing and enforcement.
The agency as a whole “needs more money and more staff immediately,” said Amy Margolis, a Portland attorney who specializes in cannabis law and the director of the Oregon Cannabis Association. “I don’t think anybody would argue that they are overwhelmed and underfunded by the job they’ve been given.”
On other questions, the Legislature took no action, allowing a bill to permit social consumption at licensed cannabis clubs and special events to die along with another to prevent employers from firing or refusing to hire anyone based on after-hours cannabis use. The social consumption bill ran into opposition from state and local public health officials who pushed back on the attempt to carve an exception for smoking marijuana out of the state Indoor Clean Air Act.
Advocates for cannabis said they expected bills on those questions to surface in the 2018 and 2019 legislative sessions.
Margolis said the Legislature this year went just far enough in tweaking the law on marijuana in Oregon. Fully merging medical and recreational marijuana into one system would have created chaos in the legal marijuana market in Oregon, she said.
“I think the most significant gain that was made was that nothing destabilizing occurred,” Margolis said. “Meaning that in the previous (2016) legislative session, they did a really major overhaul of the system that required enormous rule changes. Just when people started to be successful, the goal posts moved.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7815, firstname.lastname@example.org