Medical pot changes debated
A bill in the House combines a number of new restrictions that failed in earlier bills
BY SAUL HUBBARD
Published: (Friday, May 20, 2011 04:25AM)Today
http://rg-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/v3.5/images/template/rules/rule-05.gif); height: 1px; background-repeat: repeat no-repeat; ">
SALEM — Medical marijuana advocates turned out in force at the Capitol on Thursday to take part in a sometimes-rowdy public hearing on a bill that would make a number of changes to Oregon’s medical marijuana laws.
House Bill 3664 was drawn up in recent weeks by a group of bipartisan lawmakers — including three former law enforcement officers — after approximately 20 other bills aiming to restrict medical marijuana in Oregon in different ways failed to get anywhere this session.
Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, the bill’s chief sponsor, said HB 3664 represents an amalgamation of the earlier bills and has two primary purposes: protecting patients who genuinely need medical marijuana for physical ailments, while creating boundaries to prevent abuses of the program.
“Do we have a problem with this issue? Indeed we do,” he testified.
The multilayered bill would make several modifications, which include:
Stiffening the requirements for when a doctor can recommend medical marijuana to a patient. Doctors would have to certify that medical marijuana will provide therapeutic value and mitigate medical symptoms for a patient, as opposed to current statutes that specify only that it might do so.
Providing Oregon State Police with the addresses of every registered medical marijuana grow site in Oregon, on a rolling three-month basis, whether or not they are investigating a crime.
Requiring medical marijuana users under the age of 18 to renew their card every six months by a doctor who specializes in treating children.
Reducing the number of cardholders for whom a grower can legally provide marijuana from four to two.
Restricting eligibility for the program to Oregon residents only.
Requiring a nationwide criminal background check for cardholders, growers and caregivers. Currently, only statewide background checks are conducted when a medical marijuana card is issued.
At Thursday’s public hearing, several Oregon police officers and district attorneys outlined some of the program abuses they have witnessed.
Ray Myers, a detective with the Grants Pass Police Department, said the ability of criminals to hide behind Oregon’s medical marijuana laws is immense. Experienced growers can produce huge quantities of marijuana from the six mature plants they are allowed to possess, he said, and that marijuana often ends up being sold illegally.
“It has never been as bad as it is right now,” he said.
Brad Berry, the district attorney for Yamhill County, concurred. “We are dealing, in law enforcement, with the daily abuse of this law, (people) using it as a fence or wall to hide behind for the illegitimate growing, selling and distribution of marijuana throughout the state and the country.”
Robert Wolfe of the Oregon Marijuana Policy Initiative, a coalition of pro-medical-marijuana interest groups, said proponents of the bill are losing sight of the real problem. “There are no legitimate studies, reports or surveys to back up these anecdotes of (medical marijuana) abuse,” he said. “I think what these officers are describing are problems with the black market ... and this bill doesn’t address the black market problem whatsoever.”
Opponents also slammed the bill’s idea of providing information about the location of legal grow sites to law enforcement.
Wolfe said police officers throughout the state already are wildly prejudiced against medical marijuana users, and HB 3664 would only encourage them to “go fishing.”
He pointed to public records requests by his organization that revealed that law enforcement across the state made 51,811 inquiries into the cardholder database on evenings and weekends alone in one calendar year, from September 2009 to September 2010.
Under current law, police officers can only access the database during active investigations and can only receive a “yes” or “no” answer as to whether a suspect is a cardholder. Wolfe said requests by his organization to see the numbers of those calls have been denied.
Regardless, the number of inquiries for that calendar year clearly dwarfed the 32,929 cardholders in Oregon at the time, Today, the number of Oregonians using the program has grown to approximately 40,000. The number of Oregonians kicked out of the medical marijuana programs for abuses in 2010 was 60.
Andrea Meyer of ACLU Oregon said she is concerned about the constraints that HB 3664 would place on doctors. “I don’t think (doctors) can ever say a medication will mitigate symptoms for a particular patient,” she said.
Whether the bill will be approved by lawmakers this session remains unclear.
Some legislators and advocates feel it is being rushed through toward the end of the session to avoid serious debate. Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, one of the bill’s sponsors, acknowledged that that isn’t a completely inaccurate point.
“If I was an opponent of the bill, I would think that there hasn’t been enough discussion,” he said. “This is a big change, but I think we’re bringing it back to what the voters wanted.”
While Olson has garnered bipartisan support in the House for the bill, he also characterized the changes it makes as “pretty minor,” something other legislators vehemently disagree with.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, said that while he supports some concepts in the bill — such as restricting eligibility to the medical marijuana program to Oregon residents, and including out-of-state crimes in the background check — he is very concerned about the sections that would constrain doctors and make more of cardholders’ and growers’ personal information available to law enforcement.