Oregon Gov Signs Dispensary Bill

Marijuana retail outlets are now legal in Oregon.

Yesterday, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber signed into law a bill to establish a state-regulated system of marijuana dispensaries.

A former emergency room physician, Dr. Kitzhaber's endorsement of HB 3460 was viewed as a significant victory for patients. In his signing letter, the Gov wrote: “I have asked the director of the OHA to broadly engage all of the stakeholders, including law enforcement, when promulgating the rules regarding dispensaries, and I believe it will be critical to set fees for dispensaries that will provide sufficient funding to OHA so they they can be extraordinarily vigorous in their enforcement of the rules that are developed.”

Advocates are looking forward to the next steps in the process. "We are pleased to get both the signature and the direction from Gov. Kitzhaber," says Geoff Sugerman, a proponent of the bill. "Now it's up to those people who are part of the medical marijuana program that we draft these rules right and implement them responsibly to provide both safe access to patients and be good neighbors in our communities."

According to Sam Chapman, a lobbyist for Oregonians for Medical Rights (OMR), who worked for passage of the bill, "This is the next step in ensuring a system that provides safe access to as many patients as possible while making sure these facilities are holding themselves to a high standard of conduct."

OMR estimates that there are somewhere close to 200 dispensaries operating in Oregon today without licensure or regulation. HB 3460 requires those facilities to register with the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program and meet a series of regulations to ensure compliance with the law. The bill also charges the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) with promulgating rules and regulations for a state-wide system of medical cannabis dispensaries.

Oregon Medical Marijuana Program

It's been a long time coming. Oregon has had legal medical cannabis since passage of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act (Measure 67) in 1998. The law, which voters passed, however, was in many ways written in direct response, and opposition to, the California measure which started the ball rolling, Prop 215, in 1996. Measure 67 directly forbade any commerce and payment for grower labor. The OMMA didn't even allow for simple reimbursements for things like electricity.

There had been efforts to create a dispensary system in the past. Two separate measures made it to the ballot, one in 2004 (Measure 33) and the other in 2010 (Measure 74). Both were voted down.

In the run-up to the vote in 2010, some underground medical cannabis outlets began to operate in a low-key fashion in Portland. Shortly after the vote, they started to advertise in local weekly newspapers and more were operating around the state. By the time the U.S. Attorney's office sent out letters to suspected Oregon dispensaries in August 2011, there were dozens throughout the state. A few closed in response to the letters but most of them reopened. A new U.S. Attorney sent out the same letter once again in spring 2012 to a narrower list of outlets. Again some closed while others opened.

The 2012 general election saw legalization initiatives in three states. Oregon's Measure 80 was the only one that lost; the low-budget campaign received more than 46% of the popular vote. Immediately after the election, sensing the mood, more dispensaries in Portland and around the state opened, or reopened.

This is the context in which Oregon's legislature considered HB 3460. They left the hard work - the details of what a regulated dispensary system will look like - to the OHA.

The OHA has begun to at least appear to consult with people who purportedly know something about medical cannabis. The Advisory Commission on Medical Marijuana (ACMM) is an appointed committee of citizens from around the state who are responsible for advising the OHA on the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. Some skeptics describe the ACMM as a safe place for the state to put cranks and loudmouths where those people can feel important and yet have no impact on actual policies, and are a limited bother to agency officials. However, that's an unfair characterization.

The basic fee for applications has already been set. ”Each medical marijuana facility would pay a registration fee of $4,000, according to the bill’s fiscal note," the Salem Statesman-Journal reported in July. "If an estimated 225 facilities register, the state would receive about $900,000 in the next two years. Revenue from the fees would help offset the cost of creating and running a new registration system."

Draft rules are expected to be ready in early 2014.


Doug McVay

Doug McVay

Writer and KBOO radio host based in Portland, Ore. He's also editor of DrugPolicyFacts.org.