The Liberalizing of State Marijuana Laws Continues
Sixteen U.S. states, including Oregon, and the District of Columbia now allow the cultivation and distribution of marijuana for medical purposes, which some view as a foot in the door to eventual legalization of pot for recreational use. Some states are headed in that direction, and Oregon is likely to follow.
California voters were asked to legalize marijuana in 2010 and a slim majority, 54 percent, said “no.” Washington voters will be asked that same question in November.
Meanwhile, a half-million petition signatures are being sought in California to put a new marijuana initiative on the November ballot. Called the Medical Marijuana Regulation, Control and Taxation Act, it’s intended to eliminate the confusion and abuses that resulted from voter approval of the groundbreaking Compassionate Use Act in 1996, which removed state criminal penalties for patients who receive “recommendations” from a physician that they can benefit from using marijuana to relieve severe pain, among other symptoms. Seven years later a statewide medical marijuana card system was put in place.
The latest initiative would do away with doctors’ recommendations, set up a state bureau to oversee the medical marijuana program and impose a 2.5 percent tax on marijuana sales. Recognized medical marijuana groups would be grandfathered in for three years, and registered users who grow marijuana in their homes for personal use would be allowed to continue.
Although it’s being promoted as a way to make the state’s $1.5 billion medical marijuana industry more accountable, the initiative also aims to reduce the conflict between the federal Controlled Substances Act and more permissive state laws regarding marijuana. Two years ago U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced an easing of crackdowns on medical marijuana patients and growers but made it clear that the feds wouldn’t tolerate “clearly illegal” activities.
Depending on how the voting goes in November, Oregon’s medical marijuana program — like Washington’s, approved by voters in 1998 — could end up wedged between a more highly structured California program and a free-wheeling all-pot-is-legal situation in Washington, although, given the continuing federal classification of marijuana as an evil like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, it’s unlikely the latter would be allowed to prevail.
Oregon’s program has its own problems. Because growers and distributors of medical marijuana are barred by law from profiting from their handling of the drug, a fertile black market has emerged that law enforcement officials say is out of control. And 95 percent of the state’s more than 57,000 medical marijuana patients say they need their pot to relieve “severe pain,” which can be difficult to diagnose and confirm.
In 2010 Oregon voters were asked to expand the medical marijuana program by setting up state-regulated dispensaries, similar to what’s being proposed in California. That measure was defeated, but with only 55 percent of the voters voting “no,” indicating that Oregonians may be going along with a general softening of attitudes toward marijuana elsewhere.
At some point, Oregon is going to have to move in the direction California appears to be heading and set up a system that would regulate medical marijuana the way alcohol and tobacco are regulated. The fiction that growers and distributors can be prevented from profiting from the medical marijuana trade would have to be jettisoned and some form of taxation imposed.
It’s a reality that many Oregonians won’t want to accept, especially those working in law enforcement. But the trend is clearly in that direction. With the number of medical marijuana patients nationally surpassing an estimated 1 million people last year, and with constant political pressure being applied by a vast and well-funded marijuana lobby, it’s likely only a matter of time before Oregon has to accept medical marijuana as just another regulated drug.