SALEM — The Oregon House took a step toward legalizing medical marijuana dispensaries on Monday as lawmakers narrowly approved a bill that would license and regulate retail outlets that connect marijuana cardholders with the drug.
Under existing law, the state’s nearly 55,000 medical marijuana cardholders must grow the pot themselves or find a person to grow it for them. The bill would give cardholders another option: purchasing their medicine from state-regulated medical marijuana retail outlets.
House Bill 3460, which passed 31-27, would require dispensaries to register with the state medical marijuana program and meet certain quality standards. The bill next goes to the Senate, which could vote on it later this week.
The bill sparked a hearty debate among lawmakers Monday.
Critics said it doesn’t do enough to stop what they see as abuses of the state’s medical marijuana program.
Rep. Andy Olson, an Albany Republican and former Oregon State Police lieutenant, said the bill lacks teeth to crack down on facilities that don’t comply with the new regulations.
“I’m a major advocate for those who are in need of marijuana as a medicine,” he said. “I am opposed to the abuse.”
Olson said he wanted to craft a new bill for the 2014 Legislature to consider that would address his concerns.
Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat and a chief sponsor of the bill, acknowledged that the state’s medical marijuana program has problems, but said the bill was never meant to be a panacea.
“This bill focuses on one thing: safe access to medical marijuana for people who are legally qualified to access medical marijuana,” Buckley said.
Emphasizing this point, Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, told lawmakers: “This bill does not fight Mexican cartels. The bill doesn’t solve hunger in Oregon. The bill doesn’t help the Blazers win the championship. The bill does a simple thing.”
Greenlick said the bill is intended to create an easy, safe way for users to obtain the drug from dispensaries.
Some cardholders who don’t have growers already get their cannabis from the estimated 200 lounges, collectives and cafes operating around Oregon. However, the medical marijuana outlets that currently exist are unregulated and unlicensed. They operate in a legal gray area and run the risk of being shut down at any moment.
Some communities such as Portland have taken a hands-off approach and allow the facilities to remain open. Other communities, however, have cracked down on dispensaries. Supporters of the bill include Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum who recently endorsed the measure.
The bill would prohibit medical marijuana retail outlets from operating near schools.And they would be required to test all batches of marijuana for pesticides, molds and mildews. Medical marijuana facilities would pay a $4,000 fee each year to be registered and the state anticipates 225 facilities would apply for licensure in the next two years, according to the bill’s budget report.
The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office estimates the state would earn $900,000 in registration fees from the grow facilities. This would pay for the cost of establishing and administering the licensing system.
Oregon would be the 15th state to legalize medical marijuana dispensaries, after Nevada legalized them earlier this month.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Oregon is one of 19 states to allow medicinal pot, along with the District of Columbia.
Voters in 2010 rejected an initiative that would have legalized dispensaries.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press