WILLIAM SIMPSON says he's one of the fortunate ones.
His medical pot grow operation is a lot of work for little remuneration. By virtue of Oregon's tangled rules around medicinal marijuana, he's not allowed to turn a profit.
But Simpson has diversified. Beyond growing medical marijuana and owning the Powell House Cannabis Club pot dispensary in Foster-Powell, he sells grow lights and plant nutrients, and finances commercial loans.
"Those luckily pay well," he says. "I get to grow for patients out of passion."
Not all of Oregon's medical marijuana producers have such a sweet setup. And after operating for years under state regulations that vastly limit how much pot they can grow—along with their ability to make money—an organized contingent of growers eyeballing the state's looming market for recreational pot say the 16-year-old Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) is finally due for change.
The only problem? The people who sold voters on last year's pot-legalizing Measure 91 are fighting back.
"The medical marijuana program should not be an economic engine. It should be, first and foremost, about patients who use medical cannabis," Anthony Johnson, the chief petitioner behind Measure 91, told Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) bigwigs at a January 30 hearing.
Welcome to the first civil skirmish of Oregon's pot experiment. As lawmakers chew over a passel of bills that will shape pot policy, and as the OLCC—tasked with regulating the recreational market—makes "listening" stops around the state, one question is drawing more heat than most: Now that we're about to enshrine pot as fun, what does it mean for people who need pot as medicine?
Right now, advocates on both sides of the debate are delivering a somewhat dour prognosis.
Growers like Simpson have banded together, hiring lobbyists and forming a political action committee that's gifted thousands to the election funds of prominent state lawmakers since last year. The work has paid off. The group's fondest wish is presently up for legislative consideration.
Inserted, for now, in a sweeping pot bill filed by State Representative Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, is a provision that would do away with some of the limitations foisted on growers by the current, Oregon Health Authority-led OMMP. With that tweak, medical pot growers would be licensed by the OLCC—just like recreational producers will be next year.
It's a big jump from where things stand today.
Currently, a person interested in growing medical pot may do so only if they're specifically designated as a grower for one of Oregon's almost 70,000 pot patients. But not all growers know patients, just as not all patients know someone qualified to provide premium medicinal pot. This has led to a "card-matching" industry—like Tinder for quality kush—where growers pay to be paired with a cardholder. Every grower can supply up to four patients, with a limit on how much they can grow for each. And they may only charge for the cost of supplies and utilities spent growing their product. Excess pot is often sold to dispensaries.
Growers have had it with this arrangement. Since Oregon rolled out medical dispensary licenses in 2014, they say they've been stuck laboring under an outdated system, and yet are still somehow expected to supply a commercial medical marijuana market. With a license from the state, growers argue they'd be better able to meet patients' needs.
And, they warn, not being able to smoothly enter the emerging, potentially lucrative recreational pot market with a state-issued license could lead producers to ditch the medical game altogether.
"It probably saves the medical program," says Amy Margolis, a Portland attorney who's represented pot growers for nearly two decades. "If you say we're not going to create a commercial license for medical marijuana growers, and you say you have to pick one, I think many growers who are able to do so will say, 'Fuck it.'"
Advocates like Johnson concede that's possible. But that hasn't stopped legal weed's biggest champions from pushing back.
On February 5, Johnson's group, New Approach Oregon, held a press conference at the headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oregon to rail against the proposed change and a handful of other bills that would, they said, pervert voters' intent in passing Measure 91.
Putting growers under the purview of the OLCC is risky, speakers said, because it would too-closely associate medical pot with a recreational market that could always be shut down by the federal government. They worry it also might further tilt the medical system toward dispensaries and away from personal relationships with growers. David Fidanque, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, said shifting that focus might leave behind destitute pot patients.
"We're opposed to any changes that could hurt patients in any way," Fidanque said. "If [fixed-income patients] are pushed into the recreational marijuana market, they're not going to be able to get adequate access."
The arguments and counterarguments go on and on. Growers point out nothing in their proposal eliminates or alters the medical cardholder system, and they say allowing them to make money off recreational pot might actually lead to cheaper medical product. New Approach and the ACLU acknowledge the medical and recreational systems will need to be reconciled at some point, but say it's too soon, that the rules of Oregon's recreational system need to be established first.
"I think these issues can be addressed in 2016 or 2017," Johnson says.
Time won't necessarily resolve much, though. Washington State—which has had its legal pot rules set for a while—is still in the midst of melding its two marijuana markets. The debate looks almost exactly the same as Oregon's.
The fight here is already shifting. Buckley, the Ashland Democrat who'd proposed changes for medical growers, announced to the Mercury he's planning "to pull the bill back entirely and start over."
"We talked to everybody and we put together what we thought was the best combination of ideas," said Buckley, who hadn't yet pulled the bill as of press time. "We didn't anticipate such a strong reaction."
But the representative, whose campaign fund received $1,000 from the growers' PAC last April, hasn't given up. He plans to cleave his enormous House Bill 2676 into two separate bills—one to address Measure 91 rules, the other addressing concerns over the OMMP.
"We're trying to figure out how to push the pieces back together," he said. "They might be two fairly large bills."