GRANTS PASS, Ore. – Oregon lawmakers have decided to tap the popular medical marijuana program for an estimated $7 million to fund other health programs and reject a pile of bills that would have made it much tougher for people to get a medical marijuana card.
It’s a legislative attitude adjustment that had marijuana advocates crying foul at the idea of doubling the annual fees charged of marijuana patients to $200. But they think they it may move Oregon closer to their goal of bringing medical marijuana into the mainstream economy where it can be readily available to anyone and taxed.
“It’s not good for the patients,” said Christine McGarvin, a member of the state Medical Marijuana Advisory Committee. “I do appreciate the politics of it.”
With federal and local law enforcement agencies decrying medical marijuana as out of control, the Legislature saw more than a dozen bills aimed at reining in one aspect or another of the program that went into effect in 1999. Eventually, a team of three former state troopers came up with a bill that would have made it virtually impossible for doctors to prescribe the drug. The bill died quietly in committee.
Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, a former state police lieutenant, said their bill was dead for the year, but he plans to work on the issue through the summer and fall and bring back a bill next year.
This past week a Ways and Means subcommittee approved doubling the $100 annual fee for medical marijuana patients and imposing a new $200 fee on growers who are not already patients. The $20 discount for poor people receiving food stamps and state medical coverage would be eliminated and only made available to people on Social Security. The $7 million raised would go to other programs within the cash-strapped Oregon Health Authority, including clean water, emergency medical care and school health centers.
If the measure gains full approval as part of the budget, the fee increases would go into effect July 1.
Rep. Tim Freeman, R-Roseburg, said he wouldn’t call the medical marijuana program a cash cow, but he acknowledged that the additional revenue would be used to subsidize unrelated services.
Freeman said Gov. John Kitzhaber’s recommended budget left a large hole in public health funding. The Oregon Health Authority had already planned to increase fees in the medical marijuana program but decided to hike them even higher to help fill the budget gap.
The fee increases came out of the governor’s direction that some health programs that received general fund revenue in the past would have to find fee revenue instead, said Barry Kast, interim director of the Office of Community Health, which includes the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.
As of April, nearly 40,000 Oregonians held patient cards at $100 apiece, raising about $4 million a year. Separate legislation would charge patients $10 to replace a lost card.
Medical marijuana advocates decry the idea of a fee increase as an unfair tax on some of Oregon’s poorest citizens.
“We managed to escape, I thought, without any changes to the program,” said Bob Wolfe, of the Oregon Marijuana Policy Initiative. “All of a sudden, out of nowhere, we get this stealth tax on the poorest people in Oregon.”
But Paul Stanford, who owns a chain of medical marijuana clinics and is gathering signatures for a marijuana legalization initiative for the 2012 ballot, said the budget measure bodes well for eventual legalization of marijuana. He estimated that taxing it could raise $150 million a year.
Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., said Oregon was following in the footsteps of states like Colorado and Vermont, which have been gradually making medical marijuana more accessible and putting it under more state control.
“If we are willing to realize it is legitimate to tax patients to fund social programs, we should be willing to see it is legitimate enough to open it up as an industry.”