Our painfully researched endorsements and voting cheat sheet are out in the paper this week, after hours and hours spent in a windowless room talking with political candidates and measure campaigners.
By far the most controversial stance we take is saying to vote no on Measure 74, the new law that would allow medical marijuana dispensaries to set up in Oregon. That's no surprise, because pot advocacy is something that inspires serious passion in a lot of Oregonians and we were personally really on the fence about this measure for a while, waffling between voting yes and no.
The issue that tipped the nearly equal scales to "no" is regulation.
There's not a lot of things that we're in favor of the government regulating (see: strip clubs, trans fats) but medicine is definitely one of them. Oregon needs a way to distribute medical marijuana to patients who need it. But when we establish a distribution system, we need to do it right. Oregon needs a distribution and regulatory system that treats marijuana just as seriously as any other medicine.
Read on for more of our rationale—and also to see a rebuttal letter sent by one of the measure's co-authors!
Measure 74 doesn't spell out exactly how the new dispensary system would be regulated Instead, it relies on the word "may," and places the task of devising regulations for all the new dispensaries on the shoulders of the Oregon Health Authority.
This is the state agency that regulates existing medications, but it's not equipped to handle the avalanche of regulatory process that a statewide medical marijuana dispensary system would create. To do its job properly, it would need inspectors monitoring every dispensary in the state. Otherwise we'll wind up with a system like Colorado's, which nearly everyone describes as having "little oversight."
Creating an entirely new bureaucracy to handle pot inspections (one that will get conflicting guidance from state and federal laws) will cost serious money. But this measure only gives permission to regulators to build a testing regimen, and it also leaves it up to as-yet-unwritten state regulations to decide how much revenue will fund it.
But let's say the Oregon Health Plan was able to transition, hire a bunch of staff, and regulate medical marijuana distributors like the OLCC does with alcohol. The OLCC's budget is $42.7 million a year, with just the regulation and admin arms totaling $33.2 million. Although the state says the measure could bring in as much as $20 million in its first year, the state also says it could net as little as $400,000. That's a significant swing for a measure that's supposed to cover the cost of its own regulation, and it hammers home the notion that economic projections are just that: projections. They could exceed expectations, or just fall short.
And if regulation and distribution of medical marijuana looks anything like the regulation and distribution of alcohol in Oregon, that means the state's general fund could end up paying the tab or the regulatory infrastructure could be patchy and underfunded. Or, in addition, so few dispensaries would be allowed to open that there would hardly be any change.
The M74 campaign says this is the "best option on the table" right now for providing access to medical marijuana for needy patients. But we don't think it's good enough. We should learn from states that have been pioneers of dispensaries—like California and Colorado—and do ours better. That means either figuring out a better-funded regulatory system (which might mean a sales tax on individual pot sales, not just a tax on dispensaries' hauls) that can make sure all pot is safe and legal, or waiting until marijuana is removed from the federal list of Schedule 1 drugs.
The Measure 74 campaign, of course, feels differently. They sent in this letter responding to the "no" vote—it spells out some of the potential benefits of the dispensaries (namely, jobs jobs jobs!). Read on!
When I tell supporters of Measure 74 that The Portland Mercury did not endorse the measure, the most common response I get is, "What the Hell?"
Most surprising is that the Mercury wants more regulation, when the current law lacks regulation and Measure 74 introduces many common-sense regulations. The regulations imposed by Measure 74 led to the endorsement by former Portland Mayor and Police Chief Tom Potter and retired Oregon Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts. The Mercury, along with many members of the Oregon media, seems to underestimate the regulatory powers given to the state. The proposal mandates rules and regulations about proper zoning, inspections, record keeping transactions, auditing, criminal background checks and security plans.
Measure 74 establishes a rule-making process that allows all concerned citizens and state agencies to develop regulations needed to ensure that the program protects patients and our communities. Law enforcement officers, physicians, sick and disabled patients and community leaders will be able to effectively craft the regulations put into place. The state will decide what restrictions to impose and may provide local governments the authority to establish more restrictions.
The Mercury also neglected the economic benefits of Measure 74 and incorrectly stated that the best-case scenario for the revenue generated by the measure is $40 million per year. In fact, the $40 million estimate is the projection of the Oregon Health Authority after the fourth year of passage. Certainly the more dispensaries that are licensed, the more money the state rakes in, but the corollary is that the state health agency will not license more dispensaries than it can effectively oversee. The revenue generated will establish a low-income patient assistance program, finance medical research and help fund Oregon health programs.
Most shocking, the Merc didn't mention the jobs Measure 74 creates. Jobs that will go to many of the readers of this weekly—young, able-bodied people with the physical ability to supply medicine to the dispensaries as well as working as the staff necessary to provide safe access to patients.
Measure 74 is a step in the right direction and while it may not be everything desired by the editorial boards of The Mercury or The Oregonian, it is the best option on the table and we shouldn't let the desire for perfection, ruin our opportunity to improve the lives of Oregonians. If you truly support marijuana law reform, legalization or otherwise, you should vote yes on Measure 74.