Measure 33 debate pins access to medical marijuana against fears of abuse to the system
By Anthony Shireman
The Daily Barometer

There are seven people in the United States who can legally smoke marijuana in any state they want.

They're part of the Investigational New Drug program, which offers one half-pound of medical marijuana a month for each member. These IND patients have what many Oregon medical marijuana patients don't -- guaranteed medicine.

Measure 33 proponents believe dispensaries would better serve Oregon Medical Marijuana Program patients.

"When you're disabled, have cancer, or are blind, you may not have that much money to go and find some medicine," said Doug McVay, assistant director of Voter Power, the group fighting to pass Measure 33.

Dispensaries will be required to provide free marijuana to patients who can't afford the care.

Before Measure 67 created the OMMP in 1998, opponents predicted widespread abuses, but none were reported in a May 2000 review of the program.

Stormy Ray, who campaigned for the original medical marijuana initiative, worries that black-market growers will abuse the system despite state inspections.

"Measure 33 has record-keeping only of what is going out the door, not what is grown. It would be easy to divert excess," she said.

But McVay thinks scrutiny from the state and pressure from patients will be enough.

"If there's abuse in the system, patients will scream the loudest."

Ray has looked at California dispensaries (legal since 1996), and says the problems they solved have been offset by problems they created.

"Some dispensaries started charging more than street prices because the supply was now safe and regulated," she said.

McVay disagrees and says that similar problems won't occur because Oregon dispensaries would be nonprofit. Dispensary competition will alter the price, but ultimately, patients determine the cost.

"Patient pressure and market forces will shut them down," he said.

Dispensaries must submit reports to the state, and profits will be taxed to offset program costs, which are estimated at $340,000 to $560,000 a year with an additional one-time cost of $135,000. Dispensary taxes and fees may reduce the total cost to $75,000. The OMMP Web site shows the March 2004 program had a surplus of over $900,000.

While he opposes Measure 33, Ray sees advantages to it.

"You don't want only one strain; you don't want one bottle in your medicine cabinet. One strain is good for pain. Another is good for migraines. Dispensaries may have that but I would object to the commercialization."

Another controversial provision allows patients who grow only one crop outdoors to keep up to 6 pounds -- the amount IND patients receive.

The ability to grow enough for a year will work for some. But, as McVay point out, hailstorms, heavy rains or thieves could destroy that year's crop and leave patients without medicine -- another reason for dispensaries.

Other patients grow indoors where plants can be grown year-round. But indoor equipment can be expensive and can fail from disease, pests or lack of growing knowledge.

Director of National Drug Control Policy John Walters has called Measure 33 legalization in disguise. "What's really going on is that sick and dying people are being used as a political prop to legalize marijuana," Walters said.

McVay, frustrated at Walters' comment, disagrees.

"This isn't about social use. This is about patients."