TEN THOUSAND POUNDS OF POT. That's the amount of medical marijuana State Representative Ron Maurer estimates Oregonians burn through every month. After 10 years of legal medical marijuana use in Oregon, politicians in Salem are beyond debating whether weed is good or bad. Instead, a surprising coalition of legislators including Republicans like Maurer are sponsoring several bills that would create an over-the-counter infrastructure for the Beaver State's most beloved drug.
Representative Carolyn Tomei wasn't planning to have pot on her policy plate this session. But when she held a town hall earlier this year for several hundred Southeast Portland constituents, a show of hands revealed that almost every voter in the room supported the medical marijuana users.
"I expected there would be more people who were really concerned about inappropriate use of medical marijuana, but there weren't!" says Tomei, who decided to sign on as a supporter of House Bill 3274. The bill would create state-run marijuana fields, ban private growers, and institute a $98-per-ounce tax on medical marijuana.
"We control alcohol, beer, wine, and all other medicines," says Tomei. "Isn't this another substance we could control? And frankly, make some money?" At $98 an ounce, Representative Maurer, who introduced the bill, estimates that the state could bring in $188 million a year for the strapped state budget. "Even if we cut [the estimated revenue] in half, we're still talking real money for the State of Oregon," said Maurer at a legislative hearing in Salem on March 18.
That kind of talk makes some medical marijuana patients scared. "We need a medical supply, but we don't need a profiteering one. It needs to stay in the hands of patients," says Jerry Wade, spokesman for the Stormy Ray Cardholders Foundation.
Wade and others say state-run marijuana farms could work well for people who can't grow their own pot, but many patients would rather stick to their homegrown and organic varieties. Over 30,000 Oregonians are cardholding marijuana users or growers.
Passionate patients have packed the public hearings in Salem on medical marijuana bills during March. At a hearing on March 18, the moderator had to remind the audience to be keep proceedings civil. "By the way, yelling out from the audience will not do anyone any good," the legislator announced.
Voter Power spokesman John Sajo—whose group advocates for pot smokers' rights—spoke out strongly against a "state monopoly" on marijuana which would distribute pot through pharmacies. "That just won't happen as long as marijuana is prohibited by federal law. I've talked to pharmacists and that's just not a workable plan," said Sajo.
Meanwhile two other bills up for debate in Salem aim to ban marijuana use in the workplace—House Bills 3052 and 2497.
According to Representative Bruce Hanna, who is co-sponsoring House Bill 3052, 60 to 80 percent of people who take a pre-hire drug test for Oregon small businesses fail. That's a 50 percent higher failure rate than the rest of the country, with 70.8 percent of failures due to pot, according to Hanna.
"It is safe to say that marijuana in any form, including medical, is the leading threat to safety in the workplace," says Maurer, who is also supportive of the workplace measures, as well as proposing HB 3274.
While Barack Obama's new attorney general, Eric Holder, announced on March 19 that he would end raids on medical marijuana distributors, the president himself stated last week that he had no intention of legalizing the drug.
Several legislators sponsoring HB 3274 describe it as a "concept bill" which is unlikely to actually reach a floor vote this year. Representative Tomei compared the bill to the Oregon Bottle Bill, a pioneering idea for recycling that went through three years of House debate before finally reaching a vote in 1971.
"It's an interesting idea," says Dylan Amo, communications director for Representative Jim Thompson, another Republican sponsor of HB 3274. While the debate over state-run pot fields has stimulated discussion, Amo points out that many important details (like where the fields would be located) "have not been hashed out yet."