Why Shouldn’t Oregon’s Medical and Recreational Marijuana Programs Merge?

   

Oregon legislators are working on a bill (SB 1511) during this short legislative session that will allow medical marijuana patients to show their Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) card at a future recreational marijuana retail shop to make tax-free purchases of marijuana and cannabis products.

Meanwhile, the bill also extends the temporary “early sales” program of adults buying marijuana and cannabis seeds and seedlings from current medical marijuana dispensaries to also allow purchase of cannabis products like edibles and concentrates.

If the bill passes as expected, the result would be two buildings that sell marijuana and cannabis products. One’s called a retail shop, and it sells to all customers, with no taxes charged to OMMP patients. The other’s called a dispensary, and it sells to all customers, with no taxes charged to OMMP patients.

The retail shop will get its marijuana and cannabis products from a producer licensed by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), who transfers it to an OLCC-licensed processor. An OLCC-licensed tester will inspect the goods before they are then sold by an OLCC-licensed retailer to any adult, without taxes if the customer shows an OMMP card.

The dispensary will get its marijuana and cannabis products from a producer licensed by the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) or from patients’ designated growers, who transfers it to an OHA-licensed processor. An OHA-licensed tester will inspect the goods before they are then sold by an OHA-licensed dispensary to any adult, without taxes if the customer shows an OMMP card.

Can anyone explain to me the need for this bureaucratic and operational redundancy?

I first experienced this dual-track marijuana madness in Fort Collins, Colorado. There, I walked into a “Rec/Med” facility where the first thing you notice is one of those banker’s ropes separating the room right down the middle. A sign on the pole pointed left and said “MEDICAL” and pointed right and said “RECREATIONAL”.

Behind the counter were all the same items – marijuana, edibles, tinctures, salves, and extracts. However, the “Super Silver Haze” in the jar on the medical side came from a clone of the mother plant tracked on the medical side, while the “Super Silver Haze” in the jar on the recreational side came from a clone of the mother plant on the recreational side.

Despite what the Supreme Court said in the Raich case, in Colorado and Oregon, marijuana isn’t fungible – there’s medical marijuana and there’s recreational marijuana – and even though it’s exactly the same strain, it must be grown and tracked and sold in two separate supply systems.

Why? How much overhead does maintaining two redundant systems add to the overall price of marijuana?

It seems to me like the Oregon legislature is slowly merging the medical and recreational marijuana systems. Considering that medical marijuana was always a temporary measure to “get the sick and dying off the battlefield” until we ended adult marijuana prohibition, this change seems only logical. If medical marijuana was an exception to criminal prosecution, why must the exception continue in the absence of criminal prosecution?

For years, the OMMP evolved to better suit the needs of patients by turning a blind eye to the clone shares, farmers’ markets, and ersatz dispensaries that cropped up. By 2013, the legislature recognized the situation by legalizing the dispensaries and setting up a system by which medical growers could sell their patients’ excess medicine to help stock the dispensaries.

But that was a temporary fix for the problem of patient access, not the establishment of an industry for growers. The growers were never supposed to be in this for personal enrichment; their role was supposed to be that of compassionate caregiver for the sick, merely recouping their expenses for supplies and, later, labor.

Now that marijuana is legal in Oregon, the distinction between medical and recreational marijuana isn’t as compelling as the distinction between personal and commercial marijuana.

For commercial marijuana, I’d prefer if the legislature took all command over the industry from OLCC and OHA and created a new Oregon Cannabis Regulatory Authority (OCRA, because I like clever acronyms). OCRA would regulate all commercial growers, processors, wholesalers, testers, and retailers, period.

If you’re growing pot to sell, you’ll need an OCRA license and follow OCRA rules. What difference does it make if your end customer is sick or healthy? Why would there need to be different rules for different customers. The fragile health of the OMMP patient, perhaps? Then why not make the standard one that applies to the patients; I’m sure the recreational customers won’t mind purer, safer, better-labeled products.

That might require a sort of “micro-business” license for the small grower currently selling to the dispensaries, but so what? If you want to make money selling marijuana, you’re a commercial grower and should follow the same commercial rules.

But if you’re growing pot for personal use, you need no license and need only follow the law. What difference does it make if your personal use is to treat an illness, a disability, or boredom on a Saturday night?

While OCRA would run the commercial marijuana industry from seed-to-sale, there would remain within OHA an OMMP that maintains a registry of patients with doctors’ recommendations for medical use and issues OMMP cards. That card gets you the tax-free purchase at the OCRA store, allows you to purchase more at the OCRA store, and grants you greater personal possession and cultivation limits.

But what about those Western Idaho (Eastern Oregon) counties that ban pot shops, but allow medical dispensaries? Simple. Write a compromise that allows localities to ban adults from shopping at local OCRA stores without an OMMP card, but requires a minimum amount of OCRA stores by patient population. (For fun, let’s call them Medi-OCRA stores.)

If you can think of a logical reason why we need to maintain two redundant systems for the same flower, please let me know in the comments. Otherwise, thank you, Oregon legislature, for recognizing that marijuana is fungible and redundancy is unneeded.

Russ Belville

"Radical" Russ Belville is a blogger, podcaster, and host of The Russ Belville Show, a daily two-hour talk radio show fo