Medical marijuana patients in Oregon are losing out to legalization.
For all advocacy movements, it seems the saying “two steps forward, one step back” is more of rule. For the advocates trying to end the prohibition on the cannabis plant, it seems that the Obama years were about six steps forward and the Trump years will be the requisite three steps back. For medical marijuana patients, the results could be devastating.
Early West Coast medical marijuana laws incentivized cultivation for patients first and allowed farmers to make a profit selling what their patients didn’t need to dispensaries. In this way, the broader market (now categorized as “recreational”) incentivized farmers to produce cannabis directly for the chronic and terminally ill. Whose use could be classified as “medical” was determined not by the government but doctors.
While this system may have seemed like too much freedom back east in D.C., it is more rooted in reality than current federal and state policies. Cannabis is a non-lethal plant safer to ingest than most pharmaceutical drugs, alcohol, tobacco and processed foods. The most dangerous thing about it has been the crime of prohibition and a lack of truthful information.
West Coast states transformed the medical marijuana movement into an industry and paved the way for more states to legalize marijuana in some form. Now that legalization is here, states are working to bring their new laws into compliance with federal guidelines and protect an industry now flush with Wall Street investment. Unfortunately, patients are getting lost in the hustle.
In Oregon, by the end of the year most patients will have lost access to the farmers that supply them as they move into the recreational market to make money.
“[Oregon-licensed recreational growers] aren’t interested in patients anymore. They weren’t interested in them before except to exploit them to get their numbers up. It’s tough for patients right now,” says Anthony Taylor.
Taylor is the president of Compassionate Oregon, a 501(c)4 political action committee that works to protect the rights of medical marijuana patients. He is working closely with the newly-created Oregon Cannabis Commission to design and enact a long term strategic plan to make sure cannabis remains available and affordable for Oregon patients.
Oregon, like the rest of the West Coast, has always been a major supplier of the illegal national cannabis demand. The cultivation community is generations deep, sustaining the economies of smaller municipalities in the region. The industry is so woven into the cultural fabric of the West Coast that after California paved the way for medical marijuana laws in 1996, both Oregon and Washington passed similar legislation in 1998. In 2010 voters tasked the Oregon Health Authority with licensing and regulating the medical marijuana growers, processors and dispensaries that were already serving the market. In 2014 Oregonians voted to tax and regulate marijuana for adult use.
Now that marijuana is legal, and the market has been divided into “medical” and “recreational,” there is no longer a direct incentive to provide patients with what they need. And once a state votes for legalization, the regulating isn’t over. Supporters, opponents and special interests continue to work the legislature for changes. No one interest has more influence, however, than the federal government.
In 2009, President Obama’s attorney general Eric Holder outlined the new administration’s position of non-interference in state medical marijuana programs in what is now known as The Ogden Memo. The Ogden Memo kicked off the “Green Rush,” which like the Gold Rush before it, inspired waves of would-be marijuana millionaires to flock west and attempt to stake their claim to the riches. By 2012, Washington and Colorado voted to legalize the adult use of marijuana. In 2013, Holder responded with The Cole Memo. The Cole Memo outlined eight priorities for the state to regulate in order to avoid federal interference, including preventing legal marijuana from leaving the state. Since the Cole Memo, bigger money has flooded into the industry and more states have legalized or plan to.
But now, with President Trump the United States has an attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who also happens to be one of the staunchest opponents to marijuana for all uses. While the administration in general has sent mixed signals nationally about how it will or won’t tolerate state marijuana laws, visits from federal officers and Sessions himself in Oregon pushed the state to pass legislation which would bring its medical marijuana system in compliance with the Cole Memo. Governor Kate Brown signed Senate Bill 1057 this May, which requires all growers in the medical market to track and report their grows.
Technically, this doesn’t mean the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) is going anywhere, but the regulations and profit incentive towards recreational marijuana will leave medical growers without a market and no incentive to keep growing for patients. By Jan. 1, any medical marijuana garden larger than 12 plants will need to track their plants from seed-to-sale just like growers for the recreational market, who are managed under the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC). Unlike recreational growers though, there isn’t much of a retail market left for medical growers to recoup their costs by selling to.
Marijuana grown under the OMMP program can only be sold to state legal patients, recreational marijuana can be sold to anyone over the age of 21, including patients. Recreational dispensaries can sell to patients too, but medical dispensaries can’t sell to recreational customers. With the bulk of the market now classified as “recreational” all but stores in counties where recreational marijuana is banned have converted their operations to recreational and growing directly for patients is no longer a condition to participate.
Compassionate Oregon’s Anthony Taylor notes that the only real incentive left to grow directly for patients is “compassion.”
“We expect to see a continuing rise in patients not being able to find growers anymore. Growers have kinda just thrown up their hands and said, ‘You know, it’s not worth it anymore because I can’t recoup my expenses,’” Taylor says. “That is grating on me heavily. There are thousands of patients who have lost their growers, thousands of them.”
The effect of the separation of the medical and recreational markets goes beyond patients losing free access to this medicine they rely on, which is not covered by any insurance plan and can cost hundreds to thousands a month. Patients are also losing access to the cannabis extracts they have come to rely on from their farmers.
Retail prices for extracts are anywhere between $40-$60/gram, including for full extract cannabis oil (FECO aka RSO). With some patients taking up to a gram a day, Taylor acknowledges that as it stands now, patients who can’t afford the cost will have to go without. FECO is available at some OLCC stores that still cater to patients, but is expensive and sell quickly.
In August, Gov. Brown signed House Bill 2198 into law, establishing the Oregon Cannabis Commission, which will make recommendations to the Oregon Health Authority to solve some of the problems patients are facing. For now, Compassionate Oregon is planning to work closely with the newly formed commission. But more support in the capitol is needed to represent patients’ interest.
“They don’t care about patients in the legislature for the most part,” Taylor says. “They care about industry and taxes, who is growing what and who is diverting what. It’s gonna be tough for patients for the next couple years, there is no doubt about it.”
Sarah Duff of Duff Johnson Consulting runs a service that matches patients to growers. She says the new rules have squeezed a lot of growers out of the medical market and have confused small businesses trying to stay afloat. She says the changes to the medical system aren’t what Oregonians voted for.
“We have to get away from quick changes to the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program that put us at risk of filling our jails with people growing cannabis. Voters made it clear they didn’t want law enforcement resources going to lock people up for growing,” Duff said.
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