One of the latest legislative proposals to tinker with Oregon's medical marijuana law might have some folks wondering what they've been smoking at the Capitol. From a rural perspective, however, House Bill 3274 may not be a completely crazy idea. At the very least, the proposal is shining a light on some of the serious problems that have cropped up along with our state's medical marijuana program.

HB 3274 would take the medical pot-growing business away from private individuals and turn it over to the state. Unveiled last week, the bill was touted as a way to improve the safety of people who use medical marijuana, usually to control pain or other symptoms of disease. The sponsors contend that with the current system, these patients have no assurances that their marijuana is free of pesticides and toxic chemicals.

The real rationale for the change - at least the one that will resonate in rural Oregon - is community safety. Some residents of rural communities are increasingly concerned that a proliferation of medical marijuana homes is bringing crime to their neighborhoods. Last year's Halloween-night invasion attack on a medical marijuana provider in Long Creek was a case in point. And police officials are clearly frustrated with the medical marijuana law, which they say protects conventional pot growing and delivery under the guise of patient privacy.

Some rural folks would like to simply erase the medical marijuana law from the books. But the bill's supporters say that's not realistic.

"The voters have spoken - twice," said Allison MacMullin, aide to Rep. Ron Maurer (R-Grants Pass), one of the sponsors. The medical marijuana law still has strong support from the urban areas of the state and from the growing roster of patients who hold medical marijuana cards - as of Jan. 1, that's 20,842 people.

The framers of HB 3274 say they don't want to upset legitimate cardholders.

"The real question is how best to administer a program that's run amok," MacMullin said.

The proposal, which she calls "a novel approach," is sure to raise a lot more questions if it gets to the hearing stage. Topping the list is whether the state should go into pot-farming.

A state-owned marijuana farm certainly wouldn't enhance Oregon's image; we already get a lot of guff from other regions about our liberal-hippie tendencies. Supporters of the bill are willing to concede that point, so they offer an alternative: for the state to license an independent contractor to produce the marijuana, under strict specifications. From there, the marijuana would be distributed - like other medical treatments - through pharmacies.

That's another hiccup for this bill; pharmacies have been leery about such connections in the past, and with good reason. Remember that the federal government, under the Bush administration, wasn't too happy with Oregon's approach to medical marijuana. To the feds, marijuana is just another illegal drug, and this proposal would ask local druggists to distribute it. However, the bill's sponsors say the Obama administration has clearly signaled that the issue will be left to the states to decide for themselves. Whether that's enough to calm the fears of pharmacists remains to be seen.

As for patients, it may seem odd for them to argue against the concept of a safer stash. However, marijuana advocates have already raised the fanciful argument that the state can't produce the quality of pot they can. They also contend that certain regions produce pot that is tailored to specific ailments - say Jackson County Surprise for one disease, and Blue Mountain Special for another. So far, that contention hasn't made headlines in the medical journals.

Some patients also might object to the cost of pot under the proposal, which would assess a tax of $95 per ounce to pay the costs of the state grow operation. It's hard to say how that compares to the costs they pay under the current private system, though, because the secrecy of the program doesn't recognize that any sales occur. By law, medical marijuana providers can't sell their crop. Before you pass the hat, it should be noted that they can accept "donations."

Amid all the fuss, legislative observers say HB 3274 probably isn't headed for enactment anytime soon. That doesn't mean that the discussion is without merit. In addition to this bill, there are more than a dozen other pieces of legislation in the works that would tinker with Oregon's marijuana laws - a trend that signals growing discontent with the current medical marijuana law. All that legislation may get torn to shreds in the debates to come, or shelved as more urgent legislation comes to the fore. But it's high time, no pun intended, that Oregonians learn more about their medical marijuana program - its evolution and its impacts.

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