By Noelle Crombie, The Oregonian
The national organization that helped make marijuana legal in Colorado in November has a detailed blueprint to ensure the same happens in Oregon within the next four years.
In a Nov. 28 memo to four Oregon activists, Rob Kampia, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, promised an infusion of $700,000 to lobby lawmakers in Salem, run television advertisements and purchase “provocative billboards” that portray marijuana as safer than alcohol.
Oregon in 1998 was among the first states to allow the medical use of marijuana. But Kampia said polling shows the state now lags Alaska and California in public support for legalization of the drug. Oregon voters said no to legalization in November, when Washington and Colorado said yes.
“Much more work needs to be done to build public support” for legalization in the state, Kampia wrote a memo obtained by The Oregonian, “and this cannot happen quickly.”
Kampia’s memo underscores how far the national conversation on marijuana has moved since Oregonians approved marijuana as medicine. Some advocates say it is time to move beyond laws that make marijuana available only with a doctor’s approval. Some key policymakers say when legalization comes to Oregon, medical marijuana will become irrelevant.
But the Kampia memo also highlights the uncertainties involved. Oregon’s views of marijuana are quirky but consistent. Voters twice rejected efforts to expand access to medical marijuana before defeating legalization this year.
A yearlong examination of the state’s medical marijuana program by The Oregonian exposed deep frustration among doctors, police, public health regulators. Scant oversight and loose rules have allowed widespread abuse of the program, the newspaper found.
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the pro-marijuana movement’s success in Washington and Colorado “has created an entire new political reality in the United States.”
“In some ways, we are definitely past the era of medical marijuana,” he said. Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., allow medical marijuana, and only few additional states are likely to adopt it. Medical marijuana, he said, “has run its political course.”
But Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, who considers legalization inevitable, said the state still needs tofind a way to make the current marijuana program work.
Bates, a physician who supports the program, said patients who need marijuana can’t get it. People in southern Oregon neighborhoods complain about outdoor grow sites. And some cardholders exploit the program for profit.
“It’s really a mess,” Bates said.
Frustration with law
Doctors, who are at the center of the 1998 law, have an uneasy relationship with medical marijuana.
Patients need a doctor’s authorization to get a medical marijuana card, but physicians worry about the professional repercussions of signing off on patients’ cannabis use and the lack of research on the drug’s health benefits.
A specialized industry has cropped up to meet demand for medical marijuana cards. The Oregonian found nine doctors approved more than half the patients currently in the program.
“One of the biggest things that has been the most frustrating for me about this whole program and this whole issue is the dearth of science underlying all this,” said Dr. Mel Kohn , Oregon’s public health director and a pediatrician by training.
Kohn, who oversees the state’s medical marijuana program, said some people are helped by marijuana. But others may be harmed.
“The science base for discerning who those folks are is very, very thin,” said Kohn, “and that troubles me a great deal when we are making public policy.”
Leaders of the American Academy of Pediatrics are circulating a resolution opposing the drug’s use in children, saying much remains unknown about the risks and potential benefits. Oregon places no age restrictions on medical marijuana, and 52 children participated in the program as of November.
Patients aren’t satisfied either. They say the state gives them the ability to possess the drug but no guidance on obtaining it. The law allows patients to grow marijuana or have someone do it for them, but that is unrealistic or impossible for frail and sick patients.
Patients pay some of the highest fees in the country to participate in Oregon’s medical marijuana program. Those fees, starting at $200 a year, help underwrite state programs that have nothing to do with medical marijuana.
Expanding the list of health conditions that qualify for medical marijuana use is difficult, say advocates, who have been stymied in efforts to include post-traumatic stress disorder.
Law enforcement officials say medical marijuana grow sites have proliferated in parts of the state, generating citizen complaints about smell and traffic.
Police also worry that the law has legitimized the drug’s recreational use in regions where cannabis is woven into the culture. The Oregonian found that tiny communities in southern Oregon are home to some of the highest concentrations of medical marijuana patients in the state.
Drug traffickers also exploit the law’s generous possession and plant limits the state’s lack of oversight, the newspaper found. The law doesn’t require inspection of grow sites, allowing those who abuse the program to operate in secret.
“Right now we have more oversight with folks that cut hair or manicure than we do that grow weed,” said Tim George, Medford’s police chief.
Some activists viewed medical marijuana as a step on the road to legalization.
Leland Berger, a longtime marijuana advocate and Portland lawyer, said medical marijuana is a way of “normalizing” cannabis and the people who consume it, which in itself “hastens the end of prohibition.”
“Some changes need to happen incrementally, especially when you are talking about policy changes and when you are talking about deeply held beliefs,” Berger said.
Most people consume marijuana recreationally, not because they are sick, said St. Pierre, whose oganization, NORML, calls itself the oldest and largest legalization group in the country. So why not allow adults to use the drug regardless of medical condition?
“Let’s face it. In Californa and Oregon, the system is being largely gamed,” he said.
Others embrace medical marijuana as a cause unto itself, saying patients need additional protections that legalization does not afford.
Washington’s Initiative 502 removed criminal penalties for the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for people 21 and older, and it authorized the sale of marijuana by retailers licensed by the state liquor control board. But Washington’s medical marijuana program remains in place, allowing cardholders to possess up to 1.5 pounds.
“Most people say legalization is a given,” said Dr. Richard Bayer, a chief petitioner of Oregon’s 1998 medical marijuana initiative. “We have no idea what it will look like. If it looks like Washington’s does, then yeah, we better hold onto this medical marijuana program with both hands.”