In 1998, Oregon voters approved the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act. Since then, more than 12,000 patients have registered with the state, but activists complain that the current law is too restrictive and ends up leaving too many patients forced to resort to the black market to get their medicine. To address those problems with the law as it actually works, backers successfully petitioned to place the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act II (OMMA2) on the November ballot. Now known officially as Measure 33, the ground-breaking initiative would make a number of changes to the existing medical marijuana law, including:
"The biggest problem with the status quo is that qualified patients are having a hard time obtaining their medicine," said John Sajo, executive director of Voter Power (http://www.voterpower.org), which, along with the political action committee Life With Dignity, leads the "Yes on 33" (http://www.yeson33.org) campaign. "It remains illegal to sell marijuana in Oregon, even to qualified patients, and many of these people are disabled or dying and unable to produce their own," he told DRCNet.
Measure 33 would address those deficiencies, Sajo said. "It will create a system of nonprofit dispensaries regulated by the Department of Health where patients can obtain their marijuana in a safe environment," he explained. "It will also increase the limits on how many plants and how much marijuana patients can possess so that those limits will be in line with what patients actually require. That decision should be made by patients and doctors, not state or federal bureaucrats."
Madeline Martinez is one of the people who would benefit from the changes. The former California corrections officer was forced to retire when she developed degenerative disk and joint disease." I had smoked when I was young, but I got married, had a family, and all of that," she said. "I was in my 40s when my back starting going. I was using harsh pharmaceuticals and I was tired of being in a drug-induced stupor, so I thought I would try pot," she told DRCNet. It worked wonders, she said, allowing her to maintain her quality of life without suffering the stomach irritation opioid pain relievers caused her.
Under the current medical marijuana law, the trouble is getting your medicine, she said. "I've become an expert grower, but what if I have a crop that doesn't produce or gets attacked by bugs? Where do I go?" she asked.
Because of her illness and the fact that the substance that helps her is marijuana, Martinez trajectory has been from prison guard to executive director of the Oregon chapter of the National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.ornorml.org). She is using that position to campaign for Measure 33. "We've endorsed the initiative," she said. "The current law just isn't working well enough. We'll be doing what we can. We will be out there fighting for patient's rights," she said.
With its mandate for state-regulated dispensaries, Measure 33 will push the envelope on medical marijuana policy, and proponents understand they are in a tough fight, even in a state where voters approved medical marijuana six years ago. A poll sponsored by the Oregonian newspaper at the end of September found the measure opposed by 52% of voters and supported by only 34%.
Still, supporters are prepared to slug it out in the final weeks of the campaign and remain cautiously optimistic that they can prevail. "It looks like a real horse race," said Sajo, who conceded that the measure appeared to be trailing in recent polls but pointed out that the campaign had really barely begun. "It's really a question of how well we get our message out," Sajo told DRCNet. "After voters are exposed to the arguments on both sides, support for the measure gains dramatically. Voters know we have a medical marijuana law on the books, but they are not aware that qualified patients are having a hard time getting a supply."
The hopes of Measure 33 supporters will only be bolstered by a late infusion of cash from the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) to blanket the state with television ads from now through Election Day. "We have put significant resources into the TV campaign in Oregon," MPP communications director Bruce Mirken said, before adding, "We've put a lot into the TV campaigns in Alaska and Montana, too." Those ads, featuring seriously ill patients supporting Measure 33, began running this week.
"The ads are running now," said Sajo, "and we certainly are grateful to MPP for the help. Given the polling showing we need to get our message out, we think the TV ads are critical. We have one showing a patient paralyzed from the neck down talking about how he can't produce his own medicine. That's powerful stuff."
The fresh funds and the ads they will buy come just in time, because even though initiative organizers report no organized opposition to the measure, it does have its opponents, including some unexpected ones. That conservative medical organizations oppose medical marijuana is hardly a surprise, and the Oregon Medical Association (OMA) has gone on record opposing Measure 33. In a one-sided statement issued last month that mentioned only medical marijuana negatives, the OMA urged voters to vote no "because it is first a thinly disguised effort to legalize the use of marijuana without any medically scientific justification."
Similarly, some Oregon district attorneys and law enforcement officers have created an informal "no on 33" campaign. "It's nothing formal," said Washington County District Attorney Mitch Lampson, who has taken on initiative organizers in debates on the topic. According to Lampson, although the Oregon District Attorneys Association has come out against the initiative,Oregon DAs are not opposed to medical marijuana, but think Measure 33 goes too far. "People need to understand that the District Attorneys Association is not taking a position against medical marijuana," he told DRCNet. "We have medical marijuana on the books, and while it's not perfect, it works." Perhaps some changes are necessary, Lampson conceded, "but the changes proposed in Measure 33 are not tweaking the system, they would basically throw out the old system."
Lampson also followed the OMA's lead in describing the measure as a stalking horse for outright legalization. "The sponsors of the measure are on record saying their goal is to legalize marijuana, but they're doing it under the guise of medicine and on the backs of sick people," he said. "Don't try to pool the wool over voters' eyes," Lampson said. "If your goal is to legalize marijuana, do it straightforwardly."
Opposition is also coming from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov), though the drug czar and his underlings are careful to say they are not campaigning against the measure -- they are only responding to inquiries. Last month, drug czar John Walters told the Associated Press the measure was an attempt to legalize marijuana in Oregon and that its backers are perpetrating a "fraud" on Oregon voters. "People are being played for suckers, Walters said. "Their compassion for sick people is being used to do something that is destructive for the state. We do not intend to let any part of the United States become a safe haven for drug trafficking," he warned, without specifying what his office would do. Last week, Walters replayed those lines during a brief visit to Portland and Salem.
Given the Bush administration's record of attacks on medical marijuana dispensaries next door in California, the implications of Walters' threats are both obvious and ominous. The specter of potential federal attention and repression has led to defections within the ranks of medical marijuana supporters, most notably in the case of Stormy Ray (http://www.stormyray.org), the 48-year-old, wheelchair-bound Multiple Sclerosis sufferer who was the poster child for the successful 1998 Oregon medical marijuana initiative. In op-eds, widely distributed e-mails, and an essay in the official voters' pamphlet, Ray comes out against Measure 33. Not only would the measure bring down the feds on the state's medical marijuana patients, Ray said, it would also allow criminals to grow and could even "turn our program over to the black market," she warned. "We could even lose our medical marijuana program."
"We think that's a silly argument," Sajo retorted. "While there has been some federal action in California, there are still dozens of dispensaries operating. But we do believe the federal government is wrong, and we think it is our duty as citizens to challenge the federal government. We can predict there will be conflict, but in the end we will prevail."
The initiative was drafted with a leery eye on the feds, Sajo said. "We have nothing in our initiative that would involve commerce between the states. We drafted it to withstand court challenges over conflicts with federal law. If it goes to court, we will win it court," he predicted. "There is no reason to think the feds are going to come in and start arresting patients if we win at the polls. That is a bogus reason for opposing Measure 33," he said.
Neither are Stormy Ray's other criticisms valid, Sajo argued. The initiative allows the state health department to craft administrative rules to block the taint of the black market, and requires scrupulous record-keeping. And the higher limits specified are in line with what patients need, he said. "Stormy Ray knows better. I was her caregiver, and I had to provide her with more than 10 pounds a year," he said.
With little more than two weeks until the election, the race is on. "It's going to come down to the wire," said Sajo. "The TV ads are running. We continue to do our aggressive grassroots campaigns. We're hoping for a big turnout among young voters." In a battleground state like Oregon, turnout should be high. The same poll that showed Measure 33 losing at the end of September showed Kerry and Bush in a dead heat.