WHAT’S GOING ON with the medical marijuana program? Is it going away?
I THINK SO, and I hope so, and I expect rowdy emails for saying so. After 18 years, the program has run its course. Going forward, I would like to see everything combined into one big casserole, with protections baked in for current medical program patients. That way, we curtail the waste of two big Oregon agencies intensively regulating one little plant.
The Oregon Medical Marijuana Act (OMMA) was enacted in 1998. It has been amended several times, and today, there’s significant overlap with the emerging retail market. Back in the day, the OMMA was drafted to protect patients and their caregivers from criminal liability. Those were commendable goals, but the program never made sense from a business perspective. That would be fine, of course, if the OMMA hadn’t created a sizable market.
Back in the ’90s, the founders of the OMMA contemplated only a few parties: patients and their caregivers. Patients acquired program cards on “recommendation” from doctors, who were barred from prescribing Schedule I substances, like weed. The recommendation language was carefully chosen: US Supreme Court precedent in the abortion context said that doctors could not be stopped from simply discussing health care options with patients. Why not? Free speech.
I revisited the original OMMA recently, and it feels very quaint. For that and other reasons, people kept messing around with it. In 2004, Measure 33 attempted to expand the program by mandating distribution centers. That measure flopped. Thereafter, the legislature created the dispensary program in 2013. That’s when things got weird, in the sense of serious, state-sanctioned commerce.
Under the OMMA, patients have always owned the plants. But, for the past few years, growers have sold “excess medicine” to dispensaries under permitted agreements. Growers are supposed to sell just enough weed to cover costs, but many growers make money. Nowadays, licensed processors make money too. Officially, wholesalers do not exist, but consolidation inevitably happens when markets mature. As you can see, all of this is pretty loose.
The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) has always hustled to deal with OMMA weirdness. However, OHA sits in the hapless position of administering a statute that creates a marketplace while mostly ignoring the market. The agency is also under-gunned when it comes to enforcement: Currently, just seven inspectors deal with 26,943 registered grow sites and 409 dispensaries. OHA is candid about the fact that enforcement is complaint-driven and sporadic.
This spring, the legislature took significant steps to merge the medical and recreational markets. That merger hasn’t entirely happened, I think, because of political constraints. Now, however, the medical program is being carved away piece by piece. It’s almost unrecognizable and will soon be left behind. Might as well get it over with.