Medical marijuana in Oregon: Latest spike in patient numbers attributed to newly licensed dispensary industry
Andrew Courtenay was on his fourth round of antibiotics for an arm infection when he decided, at his mother’s urging, to become an Oregon medical marijuana patient.
The 24-year-old said he got a card in March, the same month the state began regulating dispensaries, and easily tracked down a type of potent marijuana oil that eased his symptoms.
Courtenay, who lives in Portland, is one of about 8,900 Oregon medical marijuana patients who have enrolled in the program since January.
The number of Oregon medical marijuana patients has risen steadily since the program was approved by voters 16 years ago. Enrollment has seen dramatic annual increases in the past but has leveled off, and even dropped, in recent years. But in the past nine months the number of patients has risen by nearly 15 percent — a spike that medical marijuana advocates attribute to the introduction of legal dispensaries in the state.
“They can walk in with their money and get what they need,” said Sandee Burbank, who owns three medical clinics where people can get marijuana cards, including one in Southeast Portland.
The dispensaries give people an easy alternative to growing their own medical marijuana or having someone grow it for them, she said.
“They can walk in with their money and get what they need,” she said.
Medical marijuana cardholders in Oregon
January 2005: 10,421
January 2006: 11,853
January 2007: 12,895
January 2008: 15,927
January 2009: 20,842
January 2010: 26,274
January 2011: 38,269
January 2012: 57,386
January 2013: 54,589
January 2014: 60,516
October 2014: 69,429
Source: Oregon Health Authority
The state has long been home to a medical marijuana retail industry. Unregulated storefronts offering medical marijuana proliferated, especially in Portland, where marijuana is a low law enforcement priority. Elsewhere, the retail establishments were subject to raids and prosecution.
In 2013, the Legislature passed a law establishing a regulated dispensary system. The Oregon Health Authority drafted rules for dispensaries and earlier this year began licensing and inspecting the establishments.
The state has licensed 193 retail establishments since March, 88 of them in Multnomah County. Another 41 dispensaries statewide have been issued provisional or conditional licenses.
Amy Margolis, a Portland attorney who represents medical marijuana dispensaries and marijuana growers, said the public’s attitude toward cannabis has shifted in recent years.
“People feel safer and they should feel safer,” Margolis said. “It’s way different than it was five years ago, than it was two years ago, and I think people are recognizing that.”
Courtenay said marijuana’s acceptance played a role in his decision to pursue a medical marijuana card. Patients are listed in a state cardholder registry, something that previously worried him even though the registry is confidential.
But now, he said: “People are more comfortable putting their name on paper, with it becoming more recognized and accepted.”
Another factor contributing to the growing numbers: the expansion last year of the Oregon medical marijuana program to include post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying condition. According to the latest statistics from the program, 2,433 people list PTSD as their qualifying condition for medical marijuana.
Josh Marquis, the Clatsop County district attorney and critic of the medical marijuana program and the November ballot measure proposal to legalize pot for recreational use, said the increasing number of medical marijuana patients underscores how easy it is to get a patient card in Oregon.
“Anyone can get one,” he said.
Oregon medical marijuana cards issued to patients with mailing addresses outside of Oregon:
2014 (partial): 1,208
Source: Oregon Health Authority
Paul Stanford, who owns the Hemp and Cannabis Foundation Clinics, which operate in Oregon and other medical marijuana states, said he’s seen an uptick in patients from out of state. Oregon is the only state that allows out-of-staters to obtain medical marijuana cards.
Oregon has issued medical marijuana cards to out-of-state residents since 2010. Agency statistics show the number has gone from 41 patient cards to non-Oregon residents in 2010 to 1,208 so far this year. (Willie Nelson annually renews his Oregon medical marijuana card, said Stanford who helps the singer and members of his entourage with the process.)
Oregon does not extend legal protections to people with medical marijuana cards issued by other states. However, according to Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana patient advocacy group, an Oregon medical marijuana card offers patients some legal protection in Arizona, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire and Nevada.
Stanford this week hosted a clinic in Madison, Wis., where he arranged for people to see a physician and obtain Oregon medical marijuana cards. He said he signed up 45 people during his trip.
“We are finding a lot of patients are flying in from Texas, from all over, and getting cannabis and taking it home with them,” said Stanford. “Patients come in who have end-stage cancer. They are coming here buying the oils, the extracts and taking it back home with them and treating themselves with it.”
— Noelle Crombie