Lawmakers consider consolidating marijuana regulation

The Oregon Legislature is considering bills that would place regulation of the state's medical and recreational marijuana programs under one agency.

SALEM — State legislators are moving toward consolidating the state’s medical and recreational marijuana industries into one regulatory system.

The co-chairwomen of the Joint Committee on Marijuana Regulation have dropped several bills that would move regulation of medical marijuana from the Oregon Health Authority to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the regulatory agency for recreational sales of the drug. Another proposal would establish a separate agency specifically for cannabis regulation.

OHA has regulated the medical marijuana program since it was created through Ballot Measure 67 in 1998. When voters legalized recreational cannabis use with Measure 91 in 2014, regulation of the new program was assigned to the liquor commission, while the health authority retained its oversight of the medical program.

Health authority officials from the beginning were reluctant overseers, said Tom Burns, a marijuana policy consultant and former health authority administrator.

The Oregon Health Authority’s tardy and ill-conceived rollout of rules and dedication of resources to the program was an “unmitigated disaster,” Burns said.

In time, it became apparent that two separate systems made little or no sense because of OHA’s disinterest in regulating the program, he said.

“The medical suppliers, growers and patients said let us get it out of OHA to somebody who does want it and will work with us to make a program that works for us,” Burns said.

But that sentiment may not permeate the entire medical marijuana industry and its patients, said Rep. Carl Willson, R-Grants Pass, a member of the legislative marijuana regulation committee.

“I think we all realize that there is a big push to have everybody under OLCC,” said Wilson, whose district covers the marijuana-fertile lands of Southern Oregon.

Part of the idea of splitting up regulation was to keep medical costs down for patients. OLCC instituted much more strict and expensive regulations to report and track product, while OHA’s system relied largely on self-reporting. OHA also charges lower fees for registration and licensing.

“A lot of people have griped about OMMP (the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program) and OHA over time, but as they look at OLCC, they are starting to fall in love with OHA and OMMP again,” Wilson said.

Their hesitation in embracing the OLCC stems largely from the higher cost of producing marijuana in the recreational system, where fees are higher for almost everything and regulation is more onerous.

Wilson said he would support consolidation if lower fees were charged medical growers and suppliers and if medical growers could sell into the recreational market, which they are now prohibited from doing.

Andre Ourso, manager of OHA’s medical marijuana program, said OHA has had its “hands full” regulating the program.

“It’s definitely taken its share of criticism, and in some cases, rightfully so,” Ourso said. “But overall I think we’ve done a very good job in handling the duties that have been handed down to us.”

Nevertheless, OHA officials see the sense in consolidating the marijuana programs.

“We can see that for bureaucratic efficiency’s sake, there really shouldn’t be two parallel regulatory systems, but there is still going to be a necessity for patients to have a program to be in,” Ourso said.

For example, patients don’t have to pay taxes when they purchase medical marijuana. They have access to higher concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in cannabis, and they can buy more of it.

“I do think there is a place for the registry program within the state of Oregon,” Ourso said. “It’s up … this Legislature to determine exactly how that would be shaped.”

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