The legalization of recreational marijuana by Oregon voters has state officials scrambling to figure out where pot should be sold and how to go about regulating, and taxing, transactions.
Backers of the new law, which goes into effect July 1, say the first order of business needs to be educating people about the dangers of over-use and the health benefits of cannabis.
In less than seven months, people age 21 and older will be able to legally possess eight ounces of marijuana and four plants per residence. Homegrown plants must be kept out of public view.
An individual will also be able to carry up to one ounce but cannot smoke or consume the drug in public.
“My thing has always been education, education, education,” said Sandee Burbank, executive director of MAMA (Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse), a nonprofit organization based in Wasco County.
She heads three clinics, including one in The Dalles, where medical marijuana users can share and exchange pot as long as no money changes hands. MAMA also helps people get registered as medical marijuana patients.
“People have had 70 years of highly-funded, federally-funded ‘reefer madness’ and education is important especially for parents who will be talking with their children,” said Burbank, 70, who resides in Mosier and is herself a medical marijuana patient.
“People have been taught that there are no medical benefits to using marijuana but that is not true. All kinds of people are using cannabis legally and even more illegally, they are all around us, and the (federal) government is still trying to sell that there are all these problems – and it’s just not true.”
She said there are 70,000 medical marijuana cardholders in Oregon and that number has increased substantially over the last two years. That demonstrates, she said, a change in the way that physicians and patients look at the benefits of cannabis, which is a natural resource.
Burbank said today’s marijuana is not the weaker homegrown stuff of the 1960s and 1970s. Marijuana leaves now range from 1 to 8 percent THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical compound of the cannabis plant, and hashish can be 7 to 14 percent. Hash oil’s THC content can go as high as 50 percent and people can overdose if they ingest too much.
“Marijuana comes in different forms and that makes a difference in how long the effects last,” said Burbank. “These are all things that people should know.”
Mark Freeman, co-owner of liquor stores in Hood River and The Dalles, believes recreational marijuana and cannabis-infused products should be sold in stores already regulated by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
“Oregon created liquor stores after prohibition ended in 1933 and eventually they were contracted out to private individuals and the system has been working well for decades so there is no need to re-invent the wheel,” he said.
“There are 248 stores already in place with owners who have been vetted with background checks and are ready to go.”
Measure 91 granted OLCC the authority to set up the regulatory framework for sale of recreational marijuana. The agency is currently taking citizen comment to learn how people want sales to be handled.
Toward that end, OLCC has undertaken an extensive rulemaking process – listening sessions take place today in Pendleton and Baker City – and public input may be submitted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The agency is also charged with issuing licenses for producers, processors and wholesalers.
Freeman said one of OLCC’s priorities is to prevent sales to minors, another reason he believes cannabis should be sold in liquor stores. He said only adults can shop there so edible products will be much less likely to fall into the hands of children.
“Our employees are used to checking IDs and we already have alarm system and surveillance cameras in place to discourage theft,” he said. “It’s an adult product and it needs to be sold responsibly, which we have a history of already doing.”
Burbank, who sat on the advisory board that wrote the law allowing medical marijuana dispensaries, thinks a variety of stores should be allowed to sell cannabis.
“I think it should be handled like the beer and wine model,” she said. “I don’t think people trying to avoid being around alcohol should have to go into a liquor store to get cannabis. And the OLCC doesn’t have any experience in this area.”
Freeman pointed out that OLCC has appointed Tom Burns to head its marijuana program. He oversaw implementation of the state’s medical marijuana dispensary system – there are now nearly 213 retail outlets — and was an administrator with the Oregon Health Authority.
M91 was approved by 56 percent of the voters statewide, although it failed by a 51 percent margin in Wasco County.
Freeman contends that many of the voters who approved the measure were under the impression that OLCC would manage sales of pot because of its experience with the alcohol trade.
“I think many voters supported legalization of marijuana because that perception,” he said.
Burbank believes language in M91 requiring OLCC to begin accepting license application for retail sales by Jan. 4, 2016, demonstrates an intent for wider distribution.
Some legislators are talking about abolishing the state’s medical marijuana program and shifting all users to the new retail market.
Burbank argues that the programs need to be kept separate because they serve different purposes – one is for patients with special needs and the other is for people who want to recreate by experiencing intoxication.
“Those who are patients may need much stronger preparations and, even then, may not experience the ‘high,” she said.
The excise tax allowed by M91 is $35 per ounce for cannabis flowers from a producer, $10 an ounce for leaves and $5 per immature plant. Growers in an Oregonian report said it costs between $400 and $1,000 to produce a pound of cannabis, which sells for between $2,100 and $3,000 per pound on the retail market.
Distribution of revenue after costs is mandated is to take place as follows:
• Forty percent to the Common School Fund.
• Twenty percent to mental health alcoholism and drug services.
• Fifteen percent to state police.
• Ten percent to cities for enforcement.
• 10 percent to counties for enforcement.
• Five percent to Oregon Health Authority for alcohol and drug abuse prevention.
Malen Malik, a senior state economist, estimates that $9.4 million in tax revenue will be realized the first year of sales, and that number will soon climb to an annual intake of $20 million
Local governments may not prohibit licenses in their jurisdiction except if voters approve that move in a general election. Counties and cities may adopt time, place and manner restrictions to regulate public nuisance.
Last year The Dalles City Council and Wasco County Commission put a moratorium on marijuana dispensaries in town pending the outcome of the vote on M91. The ban expires on May 1 unless local government leaders take action to remove it before that time.
Gene Parker, city attorney, said the moratorium was granted by the legislature to provide local officials with time to figure out how to regulate legal sales of marijuana, if at all.
A legal challenge is expected to decide whether the The Dalles and other Oregon cities had the authority to enact a local tax on marijuana sales.
In October, the city council set the framework for a tax, although no amount was decided upon.
Proponents of M91 contend that only the state has been given taxing authority.