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The Cannabis Crossroads: Oregon voters will decide in November whether to bring marijuana sales to Main Street 

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As of July 1 of this year, 36,380 Oregonians, which is about the equivalent of the entire combined population of Crook and Jefferson counties, had been approved to possess, grow and use marijuana without fear of prosecution. They are members of the state's ever-growing medical marijuana cardholder community. As it turns out, government sanctioned pot smokers, although not all toke in the traditional sense, are one of the state's fastest growing populations. More than 23,000 Oregonians applied for a medical marijuana card in the last year and some 5,000 apps were pending as of the start of last month.

As the interest in the program soars, medical marijuana advocates are now pushing for another major relaxing of the state's laws regarding the drug. Thanks to their efforts, this November voters will decide whether to take pot out of the closet grow room and out into the world of retail storefronts through a state regulated system of "dispensaries" where card holders can shop for pot like they would a new pair of shoes.

There are other states - 14 of them and likely soon to be more - that have medical pot laws on the books, but few have provisions like Oregon's program wherein a cardholder is allowed to use cannabis, but can't buy it from, or sell it to, other cardholders. They're expected to grow it themselves or get it for free from someone else. But next year, cardholders may be able to buy marijuana at a neighborhood dispensary - a pot pharmacy, of sorts.

Dispensaries have in the past caused headaches for local governments in states like California and Colorado, but advocates of Measure 74, as the dispensary law is now known, say Oregon's state-regulated approach would more easily place marijuana in the hands of our growing population of medical marijuana patients, which includes cancer patients, chronic pain sufferers and people receiving end-of-life care. And, of course, the measure could also rake in some tax revenue thanks to a 10 percent sales tax.

The fact that the measure made the ballot - its requisite 82,769 signatures coming in on time in mid July - is not a surprise, considering a similar measure, which didn't pass, was put before voters in 2005. What might catch some off guard, however, is the source of the measure's main opposition: the woman who more or less created Oregon's medical marijuana program.

In 1998, Stormy Ray, a grandmother suffering from multiple sclerosis, was the chief petitioner for Measure 67, which voters approved with about 55 percent of the vote, establishing the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act. Now she serves as president of the Stormy Ray Cardholders Foundation, a group she founded that assists and advises medical marijuana cardholders. She's also leading the charge against marijuana dispensaries in Oregon, saying that the measure is nothing but a backdoor effort to legalize marijuana and may actually make it harder for patients with a legitimate need to afford what she consistently refers to as medicine.

"[Voters] should immediately see there's something wrong. This bill is so deceptive. It will legalize marijuana in Oregon," says Ray who, among other things, believes it could drive up the cost of marijuana, making it harder for those with a legitimate need to procure the drug.

Voters, however, may not agree with Ray. Polls taken in 2008 showed nearly 60 percent of voters were in favor of a dispensary system and an informal poll of Oregon Business readers, hardly an obscure or radical group, found almost 62 percent approval of all out legalization.

Ray says she believes pot to be already markedly overpriced on the black market. Her foundation has published literature insisting that Measure 74's dispensaries would incur expenses like insurance, staffing, rent and utilities that would only inflate prices, thus keeping it out of the hands of those who need the drug the most. In addition, Ray believes that the provision in the measure that would employ "producers" (anyone 21 years of age with a clean criminal record who's paid the $1,000/year fee) could open the proverbial floodgates for growers.

The measure's petitioners, and others in the medical marijuana community, are miffed by Ray's opposition, calling her a "minority voice" among cardholders. John Sajo is the chief author of Measure 74 and is a near life-long opponent of marijuana prohibition. He introduced a ballot measure, albeit a failed one, back in 1986 that would have legalized pot in Oregon. He's also the director of Voter Power, the pro-pot organization that helped gather signatures for the measure.

"It's really a red herring," says Sajo of Ray's argument that the producer license will lead to widespread abuse.

"The idea that people are going to pay $1000 to have marijuana ignores the fact that they'd be subject to inspection," he says, "The health department is going to come up with rules to make sure you can't just get a producer license and not be providing it to patients."

Sajo also takes on the charge that this is simply a backdoor effort to legalize marijuana and says that the medical dispensary debate has nothing to do with legalization.

"The two are really separate issues. This is not marijuana legalization in disguise," says Sajo.

Many medical marijuana patients are in favor of a dispensary system, largely because of the convenience factor. Louise Palmer lives in Bend and has been using medical marijuana for years to help quell the effects of a long-running illness. She says there have been times when she's been too ill to grow her own crop or has had problems with her plants, and thinks that it would be nice to have a dispensary in town for those instances. She says that some cardholders who can't grow their own supply or find a provider are currently turning to the black market.

"Most people would rather buy it legally than buy it on the street. You might pay a dollar more [at a dispensary] but you'd be able to get it legally," she says.

Measure 74 would not keep cardholders from growing their own supply nor would it change the amount of marijuana those cardholders could possess, allowing those, like Ray, who would rather operate under the current process, to do just that.

"This measure just fills the void for patients. No one will be required to shop at a dispensary," says Alice Ivany, the 61-year-old grandmother from Toledo, Oregon, and the co-chief petitioner for Measure 74 who became a cardholder years ago after developing severe allergic reactions to prescription pain medication.

One of the other potential political hurdles is the fact that there's no provision for how many dispensaries could operate at a time in the state. This was intentionally left out of the measure, according to Sajo, in order to avoid setting an arbitrary limit. Instead, the free market ought to determine the number, he said. That approach hasn't necessarily worked in other areas that have dabbled in dispensaries. Southern California, for example, had to scramble to control the dispensary market after literally hundreds popped up around the L.A. area. Los Angeles has since banned all new dispensaries and shut down some 400 rogue distributors who weren't licensed. Neighboring Anaheim and Glendale have banned them entirely. The issue was in the headlines again last week when a 27-year-old dispensary worker was killed on the Sunset Strip during an armed robbery that also wounded a security guard working at Higher Path Holistic Health Care Collective.

Mike Meno, communications director with the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based lobby group, says that the states and municipalities that have seen dispensaries create a sort of Wild West environment are places that unleashed medical marijuana laws without including proper regulation or monitoring of the system.

"If you look at the cities that embraced medical marijuana early on and implemented regulations, they've had a much more positive experience with dispensaries," says Meno, pointing to cities like Oakland, California, which instituted firm guidelines years ago. He also says that when regulated properly, dispensaries can be a boon to a local economy.

"Dispensaries can pay taxes and can operate and be a benefit to a community like any other business or establishment," says Meno.

And this is, perhaps, where medical marijuana dispensaries have their most appeal to the general public - they have the potential of bringing in significant streams of tax revenue. Take Colorado's new dispensary licensing law, for example. The law went into effect in June and by the beginning of this month the state announced that it had gathered some $7.3 million in application fees alone. (There's another licensing fee for dispensaries that meets the requirements.) That's small potatoes in the world of billion dollar state budgets, but it highlights the untapped revenue stream that regulated marijuana represents.

Sajo says there's no way to accurately predict how much additional tax and fee revenue a dispensary program in Oregon would yield, but there have been estimates indicating that the program could bring in a much as $19 million in its first year alone. Some of that money would be used to fund the dispensary regulation process. A chunk of the taxes will also be put toward medical marijuana research, something Ivany thinks has been a long time coming and could lead to more effective use of the drug, while also legitimizing its medicinal qualities.

It's still unknown who will open these dispensaries, but Ray says that there are already people developing dispensary plans and hording large amounts of pot in anticipation of Measure 74 passing. One would be inclined to think that Oregon's many medical marijuana clinics, like Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse (MAMA), which holds regular clinics in Bend, would be eager to get into the dispensary game. MAMA director Sandee Burbank says that's not necessarily the case.

"If it passes and then goes through the administrative rules process and those are in place, we would take a look at it, but I don't know if we would do it," she says, "For a non-profit like us, that's a lot of extra work."

Ray obviously hopes that Measure 74 is turned down by the voters, but has a plan of her own that she intends to roll out in 2011 in the form of a bill that her organization is pushing in Salem.

"In January we will be introducing a medical marijuana system to complement our current OMMA, which will set up a patient supply system," says Ray. This would keep medical marijuana changing hands at no cost by creating co-ops where members could volunteer their time in exchange for marijuana.

There's still another question surrounding Measure 74, and it's the one that Ray and others have been asking. How is the dispensary program not just another step toward slowly legalizing marijuana, not just as medicine, but for all adults? And it might be a good question. After all, Sajo, the man who wrote Measure 74, has devoted much of his life to ending marijuana prohibition, and states that have dispensaries have typically been the ones where pot is increasingly less of a law enforcement priority. Still, Sajo insists this is not about legalization, but rather regulating an existing medical system.

No matter what happens, marijuana will remain on the state's list of controlled substances for the time being. And even anti-prohibition advocates realize that.

"There's a million questions about ending marijuana prohibition completely, and the truth is that Oregon isn't ready to make that step. But we do have a medical marijuana law. My view is that while society is debating marijuana legalization laws, we need to work on using what we now know is a safe medicine," Sajo says.

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