Feature: Oregon's Messy Medical Marijuana Statehouse Politics

With some 14,000 patients register\ed with the state under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act (OMMA), Oregon's is one of the most successful programs in the country. But thanks to a well-organized, if fractious, activist community, as well as legislative foes of medical marijuana, OMMA itself (the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program) and the patients are the objects of a frenzy of activity in the legislature this year.

While some of the legislation has been inspired by the medical marijuana community, much is hostile. Oregon NORML, one of the leading activist organizations on the issue, identifies 19 separate pieces of legislation affecting medical marijuana patients, with only five winning the group's approval.

Among the bills are 12 measures calling for drug testing of everyone from police officers to elected officials to welfare recipients, including one that has already passed the Senate, SB 0465, which would shield employers from lawsuits from patients fired for testing positive for drug tests. There are also two bills that would amend OMMA, one in the House, HB 3299, and one in the Senate, SB 0161, as well as bills that would give prosecutors the option of charging cultivation as a misdemeanor instead of a felony and set up a state-operated dispensary system.

The main battles have been fought over the employee drug testing bill and the bills that would amend OMMA. While the session is unlikely to end until June, so far, it's been a bruising one for medical marijuana advocates. While they have a handful of strong advocates in the statehouse, including Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene) and Sen. Frank Morse (R-Albany), those allies have been isolated in early votes -- the drug testing bill passed the Senate 25-5 -- or irritated with some measures put forth by activists.

The drug testing bill drew the opposition of the ACLU of Oregon, as well as medical marijuana supporters. "We believe that bill would undermine the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, which was approved by the voters, permitting Oregonians suffering from serious medical conditions to be able to use marijuana to ease their suffering," said Andrea Meyer, legislative director for the group, who testified against the measure. "There are many patients whose ailments can be relieved so they become productive employees, just as is the case with the thousands of Oregonians who use prescribed substances."

"Employers rely on urinalysis for testing impairment, but that kind of testing does not indicate impairment," said Meyer. "There is no connection between the presence of THC metabolites and impairment. As we all know, THC can remain in the body for up to 30 days. This bill presumes that the medical marijuana user is impaired on the job, but that's not the case, and this does not address the underlying issue of safety, which is what it's all supposed to be about. If they are really concerned with safety, they would do impairment testing of all employees. What is important is that they can perform. The fact that someone used medical marijuana the night before coming in for work does not mean he is impaired."

But while the drug testing bill sailed through the Senate, which rejected a measure offered by Prozanski that would have explicitly protected patients, it may be dead in the water in the House. "It's been assigned to the House Ethics Committee, where the prevailing wisdom is that it's dead," said Leland Berger of Voter Power, who is intimately involved with medical marijuana legislation in Oregon. "It could rise again, but for now it's dead," he said.

So is SB 0676, which would have created a state garden and dispensary system as a pilot program for testing different strains. Championed by Oregon NORML, the bill would have addressed the chronic supply problems some patients face, but its chances withered in the face of fears it could provoke the DEA.

"It's pretty bad in the legislature this year," said Madeline Martinez, director of Oregon NORML. "Prozanski was upset about the dispensary bill. He has always been a friend of hemp and medical marijuana, but he is afraid this one will bring the feds down on us," said Martinez. "Sen. Morse says he doesn't think he can get it out of committee because the attorney general advised that that if it were to happen, everyone would start getting arrested," she explained.

"We need to do something, and I'm not really fond of the California dispensary model," said Martinez. "A lot of my patients are on SSI, so I don't want to see them paying $15 a gram. Gee, you can choose between your medical marijuana, your pharmaceutical drugs, and eating cat food. I'm really upset with and against the California model."

Martinez, a 56-year-old law enforcement retiree, runs a garden for patients, whom she provides with limited amounts of medical marijuana at no cost. "I'm blessed to have a wonderful garden. We are able to fill our donation buckets, and now other growers are donating five or six ounces at a time. It's amazing how seeing it happen has the power of creating a cycle of giving and giving," she said.

But while Martinez and her patients are able to get their medicine, that's not the case for many patients, who either lack the health, the skill, or the talent for growing, and that's the biggest failure of OMMA, she said. "That's the worst feature: no access," she said. "You pay for a right, and then you can't use it, especially if you're unable to grow for yourself. OMMA didn't address that."

Now the main battle remaining is over the bills that would modify the OMMA. HB 3299, pushed by Voter Power, contains several provisions protecting patients or providers, including reciprocity with other states, allowing people under court supervision to use medical marijuana, and imposing penalties on police for willful violation of the law. But it also contains a provision that would subject program members who transported medical marijuana without their registry card to 30 days in jail.

Martinez and Oregon NORML are not supporting HB 3229 in its current form. "There are many good things in HB 3299," said Martinez, "but 30 days in jail for patients caught transporting without their card? Some of the patients I take care of couldn't do one day in jail. That needs to come out."

It just might, said Berger. While HB 3299 appears dormant -- it has been referred to the graveyard known as the House Elections Rules and Ethics Committee -- some of its provisions may end up wrapped into SB 161. "SB 161, which includes some things we've been after for years, passed to the Senate floor on a unanimous vote last Thursday," he said. "We may be able to get stuff from 3299 into 161. Sen. Morse said he would see what he could do."

But for all the sturm and drang at the statehouse, the session may end with little actually happening on the medical marijuana front. That could change if the community were better organized, said Berger. "There is more cooperation and more positive feeling among activists than at times in the past," he said. "But at the same time, there is a sort of lobbying by mob, with different groups pushing different bills. What we really need to do is have a conversation the year before the next session, raise some funds, and hire a lobbyist. It's tough to get legislation passed in Oregon. You have to have a consensus among all the affected groups. Law enforcement, the program itself, and advocates all have to be on the same page, or it's not going to move. That means advocates have to be on the same page, too."

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Oregon's Messy Medical Marijuana

This was a good idea, but got lost in money. Myself and thousands more like me, need and can't get any medical marijuana if you don't grow it. There are too many growers that want to have medical marijuana as an income. I am on SSDI, can't work and get a little check every month so when my caregiver wants lots of cash for my MJ, I can have rent, food or my medical marijuana. So for now I have to go back on pain pills (which I said I would never do again because of problems with pills). This needs to be fixed or gone!! I think if you ask patients that can't get any medical marijuana the law is no good to them, so why let a few profit from the many? Thank you for your time in reading this.

AN OMMA PATIENT

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