Dear Pot Lawyer,
Does medical cannabis even matter in Oregon anymore?

Legalized adult-use cannabis will likely bring about a slow death for Oregon’s corresponding medical program. As our recreational market matures, the medical side of things will start to make less economic sense for patients, dispensaries, and growers. After all, why should patients pay $200 for an Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) card when they can visit a recreational dispensary? Why should dispensaries spend effort on medicinal product when the recreational market is so lucrative? And why should growers build infrastructure for the medical program if the dispensaries and patients are going to focus on recreational?

The legislature and the Oregon Health Authority (OHA)—which currently administers Oregon’s medical cannabis program—also seem determined to put the medical program into its grave. Senate Bill 1057, which Governor Kate Brown signed into law this week, includes major changes to the medical cannabis program that seem likely to hasten the death spiral.

The bill contains many provisions that will increase costs on medical growers, costs that will presumably trickle down to medical patients. For example, the bill will create a tracking system for medical cannabis akin to the current system for recreational cannabis, and directs the OHA to impose a new fee on medical grow sites to pay for this tracking system. The bill will also end a profitable practice among some growers of maintaining a large number of immature plants under a few patient cards, and then adding more patients as the plants mature. There seems to be little reason to remain in the medical grow business, and the bill asks medical growers to inform the OHA by the end of the year whether they intend to continue to remain medical, or will instead apply for a recreational license. In other words: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!

The bill also signals a continued effort to shift responsibility for the medical program from the OHA to the Oregon Liquor Control Commision (OLCC) and to ultimately remove the OHA from cannabis entirely. The OHA must now develop a database of OMMP registrations and share this information with the OLCC. The bill will also shift all cannabis-labeling authority, including medical, from the OHA to the OLCC, and will allow the OLCC to issue medical licenses to medical businesses. These changes beg the question: What is left for the OHA?

In general, it appears that the legislature ultimately intends to regulate cannabis like alcohol and tobacco, and get out of the cannabis-as-medicine business entirely. This trend will continue, and potential new patients may be better off treating themselves through the recreational system, or with very small-scale, altruistic growers if they can afford $200 for a medical card.

Although the medical cannabis program is clearly on the decline, it will remain relevant for as long as Oregon’s eastern counties continue to prohibit recreational cannabis. Let’s hope that patients in Eastern Oregon don’t get left behind.

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