OREGON'S BEEN PENALIZING its citizens for using pot for 80 years. Now, thanks to last year's passage of Measure 91, the state's trying to roll out the green carpet for recreational use for adults.
It's ugly, and messy, and no one's entirely sure what's going to happen before the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) begins taking applications for pot-related business licenses in January 2016. But it's important all the same, so pay attention.
The bulk of the legislative activity in the run-up to legal weed falls to two groups. The OLCC—given some fairly wide latitude by Measure 91—is busy trying to figure out what regulations it needs to put in place to oversee the new recreational cannabis market. To do that, meanwhile, the agency needs clarity from the Oregon Legislature, which has a committee of senators and representatives currently mulling the laws that will determine the fate of our state's pot experiment.
So let's stick with them.
"One of the things we're trying to do as a committee is be really transparent about what we're considering," says Representative Ann Lininger (D-Lake Oswego), a co-chair of the joint committee charged with helping to implement Measure 91. "We're putting a lot of stuff on the table."
Indeed, ideas are flying around everywhere. Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day), a vice-chair on the pot committee, grabbed headlines recently with a proposal to let adults buy weed from medical dispensaries when the drug officially becomes legal July 1, rather than wait for a more careful rollout of OLCC-licensed facilities next year. That idea's got legislators intrigued. Like everything in this discussion, though, there are huge uncertainties.
As of now, the pot committee is wrangling a daunting 25 bills. But it's possible to get a sense of where things are headed by looking at the three bills getting the bulk of legislators' attention.
House Bill 3400 and Senate Bill 936 both tackle one of the biggest quandaries of legalization: How can Oregon reconcile a tightly regulated recreational market with an established medical cannabis system thought to be a prime source of black market pot?
Tension over this question has been simmering for months, with some advocates telling the legislature to leave the medical program alone, medical pot growers clamoring for permission to also sell recreational weed, and legislators generally looking to tamp down some of the medical program's freedoms.
That tamping seems like the safest bet. Both HB 3400 and SB 936 would create significant new strictures on the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP). Among the provisions thrown out in either one or both bills:
• New Oregon Health Authority (OHA)-run registries and certifications for both growers and processors of medical pot. Growers currently need only be named as a "caregiver" by a medical cannabis patient to grow and cultivate pot. That would change under the new rules.
• A new database of grow and production facilities set up by the OHA.
• Allowing medical and recreational cannabis sales at the same location, as long as the products are stored and recorded separately.
• Strict limits on the number of plants allowed in medical grow sites. Medical pot growers are currently allowed to grow six plants per patient, for up to four patients. But they're also able to pool their efforts, creating massive pot gardens. Both bills would put an end to that, setting limits on how many plants a single grow site may have depending on where it's located. SB 936 proposes a maximum of 24 plants per grow site. HB 3400 would allow 48.
This last provision has drawn the most heat, with some medical cannabis advocates claiming a prohibition on large operations could make it hard for patients to access pot.
"Senate Bill 936 guarantees that thousands of patients will be forced to purchase cannabis at dispensaries," Russ Belville, director of Portland's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), wrote to legislators in late March. "Moratoriums and bans [on dispensaries] in many localities guarantee hundreds of those patients will be forced back onto the black market to purchase their medicine."
The two bills also address only a fraction of the questions surrounding how medical and recreational pot will coexist.
The intense push and pull around this issue came to light last month, when the OLCC's top weed man, Marijuana Programs Manager Tom Burns, was fired after it came to light he'd leaked an internal document to a growers' attorney, then lied about it. The document Burns leaked was an OLCC draft letter conveying ideas for how the OLCC could regulate some aspects of the medical market.
Meanwhile, legislators have shifting perspectives on how much authority the OLCC should have. Ferrioli, in an April 1 hearing, excoriated the agency, saying it shouldn't have meaningful purview over any aspect of the laboratory testing that pot will have to undergo. The legislature has been toying with the idea of creating a "research" license the agency could grant to labs that will test cannabis.
"My confidence in [the OLCC's] ability to manage this program is rapidly diminishing," Ferrioli said on April 1. He clarifies to the Mercury he's fine with the OLCC handling recreational pot retailers, growers, and producers.
"In my estimation, they're already the ministry of clownish behavior," he says of the agency. "It seems to me that that's the perfect venue for recreational marijuana. It's just more clownish behavior."
The other piece of legislation the committee is spending a lot of time on is Senate Bill 844. The bill began as a simple provision clarifying that cannabis retailers can only get pot from licensed producers, processors, and wholesalers. It's since morphed into an OLCC wish list, packed with "technical fixes" the agency wants to see in Measure 91's language. Among them:
• Granting the OLCC permission to require card scanners at retail shops. These scanners, used in some liquor stores, allow clerks to scan an Oregon ID to ensure a customer is of age. But they've also raised privacy concerns.
• Making clear the OLCC has "peace officer" authority as applies to cannabis laws. There is some debate among committee members about how far that authority should extend. Legislators want OLCC agents looking into pot retailers and commercial growers, for instance, but not raiding home gardens.
• Allowing the OLCC to delay licenses for edible products until January 2017. The agency says it needs to do research to determine how much THC should be allowed in cannabis-tinged treats. But some lawmakers have said that's unnecessary.
"In the legislature we often have complex issues, and in several months' time find a way to resolve them," Representative Peter Buckley (D-Ashland) said at the April 1 hearing. "I'm not seeing... what's insurmountable and what can't be done."
• Specifying no licensee could start up a business within 1,000 feet of a school.
• Giving the OLCC permission to require fingerprints from people who apply for pot licenses. The agency says that's the only way it can access national background checks. OLCC officials currently have the power to require fingerprints from liquor license applicants, but don't use it, according to an agency spokesperson.
Look, it's an imperfect science, and this is all subject to change. Some bills may devour others before the legislature adjourns. New amendments will pop up, and the OLCC will continue to be browbeaten in legislative hearings.
That's part of the beauty of Oregon's radical change in trajectory: It's all new and no one knows where the hell we're going.