Oregon legislators seeking to get the state Department of Human Services budget out of the red are moving on a bill that would reduce the deficit by, among other things, grabbing $900,000 in medical marijuana user fees currently sitting in a state Office of Medical Marijuana account. The bill, House Bill 5077, also moves money from other surplus accounts into the Human Services general fund. It passed the House last week and, according to the Portland newspaper the Oregonian, is expected to pass the Senate as well.
Under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, which was passed as an initiative in 1998, would-be medical marijuana patients who have a qualifying medical condition and a doctor's written recommendation must pay a registration fee to the state in order to become a member of the program. That fee was originally set at $150 -- designed to recover program costs based on initial estimates that perhaps a thousand people would sign up. But the program quickly proved more popular -- there are now more than 10,000 patients registered -- and program managers cut fees accordingly in 2003 and again this year. Currently, the registration fee is $55, with Oregon Health Plan patients paying $20. But even with the fee reductions, the program still has a $1.1 million surplus.
"The idea was, over a two- or three-year period, to slowly reduce that excess fund where we'd have enough to keep the program operational and not have a huge balance," said Ron Prinslow, interim section manager for the state Office of Medical Marijuana.
That money could have been used to make the medical marijuana program better. Currently, for example, there is no 24-7 system allowing police to verify that a person is registered with the program. Now, it can only be done during business hours on weekdays. There is also the possibility that if the legislature gobbles up the program's surplus, fee increases could be on the way, Prinslow told the Oregonian.
Program supporters are not pleased to see legislators grabbing the surplus. "If any of this money came from the general fund, I'd agree that some of it should be transferred back. But the medical-marijuana program never cost the taxpayers a dime," said Dr. Rick Bayer, a physician who led the 1998 drive to legalize medical marijuana.
Medical marijuana activists have managed to get the ear of state Sen. Bill Morrisette (D-Springfield), who told the Oregonian he is trying to persuade his colleagues in the upper chamber to keep more of the surplus in the medical marijuana program in order to pay for program improvements he will propose later this session.