By Joseph Ditzler • The Bulletin

In one of its first messages to the Oregon Legislature, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission warned against allowing retail marijuana shops, expected to open in late 2016, to sell from the same locations from which medical marijuana is dispensed.

Medical marijuana in Oregon is unregulated until it reaches the dispensary. Growers do not need licenses the way dispensaries do, and their product is not tracked the way Measure 91 will require marijuana grown for recreational use to be tracked from seed to sale.

“Medical production by growers for cardholders, and ‘card stacking’ practices, produces an excess of product, not all of which is delivered to patients,” OLCC Chairman Rob Patridge wrote March 3 to leaders in the Oregon House and Senate. “There is debate about how much of the remainder of medical product is being shared with individuals and dispensaries, exported, lost, destroyed or simply sold illegally. The fact that there is a debate is evidence that the system cannot meet federal guidelines.”

Government authorities assume that some portion of the marijuana grown for medicinal purposes leaks onto the black market; for that reason, an unregulated system could not exist alongside a regulated system for recreational marijuana, said Tom Towslee, interim communications director for the OLCC recreational marijuana program. The Oregon Health Authority has jurisdiction over medical marijuana. Discussion at the state level already includes the possibility of bringing medical and recreational marijuana together under the OLCC, Towslee said.

“What we asked the Legislature was, if you’re going to give the medical marijuana program to the OLCC, we’d rather not have it if it’s going to be the same unregulated system that feeds the black market,” he said.

The OLCC is compiling community input as part of drawing up regulations for recreational marijuana, which is scheduled to become available for retail sales in 2016. Possession of up to 8 ounces and four plants at home becomes permissible July 1 under Measure 91. The OLCC must start accepting license applications for retail sales by Jan. 4.

Marijuana remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act. To stay clear of federal scrutiny, states that legalize marijuana must abide by guidelines set out in the so-called Cole Memo, issued in August 2013 by U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole, Patridge said during a Feb. 19 community listening session in Bend.

The memo sets out eight federal priorities for prosecuting marijuana cases under the act. Keeping marijuana away from children tops the list, followed by keeping marijuana revenue away from cartels and gangs and ensuring it stays within states that have legalized it and out of states that have not. Taking measures, like seed-to-sale tracking, will help keep marijuana from leaking outside the regulated system, Patridge said.

In Bend, dispensary owners Jeremy Kwit and Aviv Hadar, said they have no problem with a tracking system on medical marijuana. Kwit, owner of Bloom Well, on Division Street, said tracking medical marijuana is as simple as installing a computer program.

“In the spirit of making cannabis safe for everyone,” he said Thursday, “if we have to have tracking from a state agency, that’s a lot better than having federal intervention.”

Hadar, president of Oregrown Industries Inc., which operates a dispensary on NW Wall Street, said his company already employs tracking software on marijuana the company grows and sells. An unregulated system for medical marijuana will make a mockery of the recreational system, he said.

“What Rob (Patridge’s) letter is, is essentially a statement that articulates that the state and industry need to build a box that doesn’t leak,” Hadar said. “We all need to build a box that doesn’t leak to kids or the black market.”

They and other dispensary owners interviewed in Bend said they would consider selling recreational marijuana when it becomes legal to do so.

However, Alex Rogers, owner of clinics in Ashland and Eugene, and an advocate for medical marijuana, said the existing framework for medical marijuana in Oregon works fine. Rogers is an organizer behind the Medical Marijuana Business Conference in Eugene on Saturday and today, one of three he organized in Oregon in the past 1½ years. He expected the future of dispensaries in Oregon would be a foremost topic in Eugene.

“Myself and the other organizers of the event are strong advocates of keeping medical marijuana completely in place and intact and not making any drastic changes to it,” he said. “Medical (marijuana) is a system the citizens are happy with.”

The medical marijuana program, first approved by voters in 1998, serves a specific need for a particular clientele. Users of medical marijuana have concerns, such as privacy, that aren’t necessarily important to recreational users, Rogers said. He said some further regulation of medical marijuana is acceptable, but it should not be associated too closely with recreational marijuana.

“The mantra with (Measure) 91 was ‘let people outta jail and don’t mess with medical marijuana,’” Rogers said. “That was the will of the voters, the will of the people. It’s only the politicians and big business that want this to change.”

Oregon looks to Colorado over Washington as the model of a state with regulatory programs for both medical and recreational marijuana, Towslee said. Both medical and recreational marijuana there are subject to seed-to-sale tracking systems. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment oversees the medical program; the state Department of Revenue regulates the recreational side.

Like Measure 91 in Oregon, Amendment 64 in Colorado, approved by voters in 2012, did not address that state’s medical marijuana system. Backers of Amendment 64 saw potential harm to medical marijuana patients, whose needs differ from recreational users, by lumping the two together, said Teri Robnett, of Denver, a medical marijuana user and a board member of the Colorado chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“Our recreational system is incapable of supplying what a real patient needs,” Robnett said Thursday. “Even the medical system can’t supply the most desperate patients’ needs.”

At the opposite end of the regulatory spectrum, Washington’s medical marijuana law allows qualified patients to possess marijuana and grow it collectively. But dispensaries operate outside the law. Dispensaries are neither legal nor regulated, said Don Moyer, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health. The exact number of dispensaries is unknown, he said.

However, as many as 1,000 dispensaries could be in business, said Kevin Oliver, executive director of Washington NORML.

“Next to a regulated system, it’s pretty Wild West,” he said.

Illegal dispensaries sprang up as registered medical marijuana users formed collective gardens to grow the maximum number of plants allowed under state law, Oliver said. State law allows a maximum 10 people in a collective growing as many as 45 plants. The collectives opened storefronts, illegal but tolerated by authorities because state law recognizes that medical marijuana users have an affirmative defense if they’re prosecuted, Oliver said. Based on that premise, authorities have no incentive to crack down on illegal marijuana dispensaries, he said.

Like Oregon and Colorado, legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington did not affect the separate regulations on medical marijuana. A bill moving through the Washington Legislature, SB 5052, would regulate the medical marijuana supply and dent that gray market, Oliver said.

“The Legislature has been talking about this for a couple of years,” he said. “5052 flew through the Senate; it’s flying through the House. It’s no surprise that that was going to happen.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7815,