IN THEIR ONGOING EFFORT to balance Oregon's budget, lawmakers have turned to an unconventional source of health care revenue: the state's medical marijuana program.
As soon as October 1, application fees could nearly double for cardholders, in hopes of raising an estimated $6.4 million for the Oregon Health Authority. While the money will offset planned cuts in programs affecting seniors, pregnant women, and others, marijuana advocates worry the higher fee also will create a hardship for lower-income patients in need of the drug.
"It's always a struggle, especially in this economic time," says Madeline Martinez of marijuana advocacy group NORML. "So many patients are low income, it's difficult to ask them to put even more money into it."
A cardholder herself, she says the cardholders with the financial stability to endure the fee increase are likely the ones who exploit the system for personal profit or recreational use.
In June, a Ways and Means subcommittee initially voted to hike the medical marijuana application fee, currently $100, to $200. But talks with the Oregon Advisory Committee on Medical Marijuana pushed the price down to $180. The current proposal also calls for raising the application fee for food-stamp holders—from $20 to $80—and for disabled patients in the Supplemental Security Income program—from $20 to $40. Officials would also start charging $50 to replace lost cards. The proposal, after facing community feedback at statewide hearings, is waiting final revisions.
Todd Dalotto, vice chairman of the Advisory Committee on Medical Marijuana, says this month's hearings brought forth frustrated and frightened cardholders who were concerned about the longevity of this price boost. Currently, the draft provides no sunset clause or any other wording about a timeline. The rocky hearing results, Dalotto says, will most likely have an impact on the fee levels.
Iva Cunningham, owner of local medical marijuana clinic Alternative Medical Choices, says the decision shows the need for a state-regulated supply system. "I understand the motivation behind it," says Cunningham, "but I do know this will force a lot of patients back to the black market."
Despite the hefty price, this could be a step toward legalizing marijuana in the state. It's illegal in Oregon to sell or purchase pot, but there are more than 59,000 cardholders, illustrating an obvious demand. Barry Kast of Oregon Public Health says that although OPH expects a five percent drop in regular cardholders, if the current proposal goes through, he is certain it's a positive move for the state.
"This is a substantial policy change," Kast says. "While advocates are outraged by the price hike, the state is becoming more dependent on the program."