Pubdate: Thu, 11 Aug 2016
Source: Portland Mercury (OR)
Column: Ask a Pot Lawyer
Copyright: 2016 The Portland Mercury
Author: Vince Sliwoski


WHAT'S GOING ON with the medical marijuana program? Is it going away?

I THINK SO, and I hope so, and I expect rowdy emails for saying so. 
After 18 years, the program has run its course. Going forward, I 
would like to see everything combined into one big casserole, with 
protections baked in for current medical program patients. That way, 
we curtail the waste of two big Oregon agencies intensively 
regulating one little plant.

The Oregon Medical Marijuana Act (OMMA) was enacted in 1998. It has 
been amended several times, and today, there's significant overlap 
with the emerging retail market. Back in the day, the OMMA was 
drafted to protect patients and their caregivers from criminal 
liability. Those were commendable goals, but the program never made 
sense from a business perspective. That would be fine, of course, if 
the OMMA hadn't created a sizable market.

Back in the '90s, the founders of the OMMA contemplated only a few 
parties: patients and their caregivers. Patients acquired program 
cards on "recommendation" from doctors, who were barred from 
prescribing Schedule I substances, like weed. The recommendation 
language was carefully chosen: US Supreme Court precedent in the 
abortion context said that doctors could not be stopped from simply 
discussing health care options with patients. Why not? Free speech.

I revisited the original OMMA recently, and it feels very quaint. For 
that and other reasons, people kept messing around with it. In 2004, 
Measure 33 attempted to expand the program by mandating distribution 
centers. That measure flopped. Thereafter, the legislature created 
the dispensary program in 2013. That's when things got weird, in the 
sense of serious, state-sanctioned commerce.

Under the OMMA, patients have always owned the plants. But, for the 
past few years, growers have sold "excess medicine" to dispensaries 
under permitted agreements. Growers are supposed to sell just enough 
weed to cover costs, but many growers make money. Nowadays, licensed 
processors make money too. Officially, wholesalers do not exist, but 
consolidation inevitably happens when markets mature. As you can see, 
all of this is pretty loose.

The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) has always hustled to deal with 
OMMA weirdness. However, OHA sits in the hapless position of 
administering a statute that creates a marketplace while mostly 
ignoring the market. The agency is also under-gunned when it comes to 
enforcement: Currently, just seven inspectors deal with 26,943 
registered grow sites and 409 dispensaries. OHA is candid about the 
fact that enforcement is complaint-driven and sporadic.

This spring, the legislature took significant steps to merge the 
medical and recreational markets. That merger hasn't entirely 
happened, I think, because of political constraints. Now, however, 
the medical program is being carved away piece by piece. It's almost 
unrecognizable and will soon be left behind. Might as well get it over with.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom