Southern Oregon marijuana proponents tell the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to leave medical marijuana as is
ASHLAND — Nowhere in Oregon does the debate over marijuana policy play out more starkly than in Jackson County, a place renowned for churning out premium cannabis that fetches top dollar on the black market to the dismay of cops who for years cracked down on outlaw growers.
The southern Oregon county on the California border votes Republican, but its residents’ strong live-and-let-live streak helps explain why they also said yes last fall to legalizing marijuana.
While marijuana in the damp Willamette Valley is typically grown in climate-controlled basements and warehouses, in southern Oregon, marijuana thrives outdoors thanks to an ideal climate that nurtures plants so vigorous they can be seen on Google earth each summer and fall.
As Tim George, the blunt-talking Medford police chief, puts it: “We are the eye of the storm.”
So when the Oregon Liquor Control Commission visited Ashland this Wednesday week as part of its effort to hear from Oregonians about what a regulated marijuana industry should look like, they heard two distinct messages: Local officials, police especially, urged the creation of a tightly controlled recreational marijuana industry with strong oversight and stiff consequences for violators. Marijuana growers and advocates told the state to leave them alone.
(Oregon Liquor Control Commission considering next steps in marijuana regulation)
The meeting at Southern Oregon University raised some of the fundamental questions facing lawmakers and policy makers as they design a regulated marijuana industry. One of the biggest is how will the state balance the popular, and largely unregulated, medical marijuana program with a recreational one?
Medical marijuana advocates statewide, including the organization that helped put the legalization measure on the 2014 ballot, have rallied in recent weeks to preserve the medical program.
They fear patients, who can possess and grow more marijuana than is allowed under the recreational law, will end up paying more for cannabis. They also say requiring regulation of medical marijuana production interferes with personal relationships between patients and growers. They worry, too, that patients used to getting cannabis directly from growers would have to shop for it instead.
“To overregulate it and tax it would destroy it,” said Michael Monarch, CEO of Green Valley Wellness, a Talent medical marijuana dispensary. “It’s forcing people who are now working with a phenomenal organic (medical marijuana) gardener and forcing them to go to Rite Aid.”
Monarch said the new marijuana law made it clear to voters that the medical program would remain intact.
“There is a lot of anger among patients when they talk about changing it,” he said. “That is not what we voted for.”
Oregon regulates medical marijuana dispensaries, but the rest of the program operates without state oversight. Even as medical marijuana dispensaries have evolved into commercial enterprises, the state doesn’t know how much medical marijuana is grown, or where it ends up.
The medical marijuana program, one of the oldest in the county, allows patients with qualifying medical conditions to grow their own marijuana or have someone do it for them. Growers are may be reimbursed for basic costs.
Many, from police to some growers themselves, say the original concept is outdated and leads to black market profiteering.
Rob Patridge, chairman of the liquor control commission that will oversee the recreational marijuana industry, said that lack of oversight jeopardizes state efforts to regulate the recreational industry. Former Gov. John Kitzhaber argued that medical marijuana should be regulated to limit black market trafficking.
“If the goal at OLCC is to put in a regulated market and to maximize revenue, then it’s certainly in our province to point out other market factors that impact what’s going on,” said Patridge, who lives in Medford and is the Klamath County district attorney.
Though the liquor control commission hasn’t taken an official position on whether medical dispensaries can share a location with a recreational shop, Patridge this week made clear his own doubts.
“It would be difficult if not impossible to ensure the integrity of the regulated market if they were co-located,” he said.
At the Ashland forum, liquor control commission staffers handed out sheets of colored paper for the crowd of about 350 people to hold up in response to questions about everything from whether edibles should be restricted to the types of packaging the state should require. Red signaled no, yellow maybe and green approval.
“How many people think we should require (security) cameras in outdoor grows?,” Patridge asked.
“Lots of red,” he said, surveying the audience.
“How about some form of security?” he asked.
“Still red,” he said.
Meanwhile, when Patridge asked whether the state should allow marijuana-infused edible products, including gummy bears, green sheets fluttered in the air.
The responses echoed what Patridge has heard from medical marijuana advocates statewide.
“They want very limited regulation,” said Patridge, who’s presided over seven community forums so far. “Generally they are saying — I think we heard in Eugene very loudly — they don’t want many restrictions on items on like edibles.
“They want … government regulation light,” he said. “They don’t want government interference at all.”
But for George, whose career in the Medford Police Department spans nearly four decades, the unchecked medical marijuana program should serve as a cautionary tale.
A longtime critic of the medical marijuana program, George worries his officers will end up dealing with the fallout of inadequate regulation over the recreational market. He’s concerned the liquor control commission lacks resources and staff to enforce marijuana rules, and that like alcohol, police will end up on the front lines.
“In reality, I am liquor control,” said George. “All of the calls for service that have an alcohol nexus are what local law enforcement responds to every day.”
In southern Oregon, where complaints about the odor from medical marijuana grow sites are common in the summer and fall, officials and growers are paying especially close attention to how marijuana policy will play out.
“This is a big animal,” said George. “They are going to have to tame this thing. They are going to have to have the resources to tame it.”
— Noelle Crombie