Backers say Measure 33 is needed because current law is too restrictive, but foes view it as a backdoor step toward legalization

Monday, September 27, 2004
DON COLBURN

The debate over Measure 33, which would make it easier for patients to get medical marijuana and allow them to have more, turns on whether voters think Oregon's 6-year-old law works or is needlessly restrictive.

Proponents and opponents worry that the Measure 33 campaign, which hasn't attracted large amounts of money on either side, might get lost among higher-profile measures dealing with gay marriage, medical malpractice and land use.

Proponents say the issue is about access: Because patients can only grow their own or get it from a caregiver, they say, many are going without.

"Current limits on possession of medical marijuana and plants are so restrictive that virtually every qualified Oregon patient goes without medicine at some point," says chief petitioner John Sajo, who heads Voter Power, an advocacy group for patients. "A law that forces patients to run out of medicine needs an amendment like Measure 33."

But an unlikely coalition of opponents -- including a chief backer of the original initiative, the Bush administration, law enforcement officials, the Libertarian Party and the Oregon Medical Association -- have lined up against it.

Some see the measure as a "backdoor" effort at legalizing marijuana. But Libertarians oppose it for the opposite reason, saying it does not go far enough toward legalization.

"This isn't medicine," says Jennifer de Vallance, spokeswoman for the White House drug policy office. "This is essentially legalizing drug trafficking in Oregon."

Oregon is one of nine states where use of medical marijuana is legal. More than 10,000 Oregonians have cards that allow them to use small amounts of marijuana for medical reasons. Patients must grow their own plants or find a caregiver to do it for them.

The provisions

Some of Measure 33's provisions would: Increase the amount of usable marijuana cardholders could possess from 3 ounces to 1 pound, and the allowable number of plants from three to 10. Allow naturopaths and nurse practitioners to sign a patient's application for a card. Currently, only medical doctors and osteopaths can do so. Allow designated caregivers to sell marijuana to 10 registered patients. Current law forbids the sale of marijuana. Create a network of dispensaries, regulated by the Department of Human Services, to sell marijuana to patients or caregivers. Dispensaries would pay as much as 20 percent of their proceeds to finance a state program allowing poor patients to get the drug for free.

Opponents, including some original backers of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, say those changes are tantamount to legalization and could lead to a backlash against the program.

The Oregon Medical Association, which stayed neutral on the original law, opposes Measure 33, saying it makes unfounded claims about the medical use of marijuana.

Proponents are trying to "use the cloak or shield of medical use to legalize marijuana," says Dr. Bob Dannenhoffer, a pediatrician in Roseburg who is president-elect of the state's largest doctors group.

"If people want to have that discussion, let's have it," he says. "But let's not confuse voters and make them think this is medical."

Sajo, the chief petitioner, says the proposed changes would not legalize marijuana. "I don't know how you can call it legalization," he says, "when anyone caught with more than a pound of marijuana -- who isn't authorized -- will be committing a felony."

Others aren't convinced.

It's a wolf in sheep's clothing," says Jerry Wade, spokesman for the Stormy Ray Foundation, founded by and named for a patient who campaigned for the original law. "Measure 33 would replace Oregon's medical marijuana program with something that will not work, cannot be implemented and would endanger the current program."

Many patients excluded

In Oregon, patients can apply for medical marijuana to treat "a debilitating medical condition" such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS or any illness involving severe pain, nausea, weakness, seizures or muscle spasms. Each application must be signed by a physician; more than 1,400 Oregon doctors have approved at least one request.

The trouble with the law is that it excludes "the vast majority of patients," Sajo says.

"Most patients aren't interested in growing their own marijuana or finding a caregiver to grow it for them," he says. "They would rather go to a dispensary, much as they do for other drugs at a pharmacy."

Sajo says he envisions at least one dispensary in every populous county, with perhaps a dozen in the Portland area.

Patients with chronic pain may need as many as 10 marijuana cigarettes a day, Sajo says. The 3-ounce limit lasts only about 10 days for such patients, he says.

Nor is it easy to grow marijuana indoors under lights, he says.

"Basically, it takes a spare room," Sajo says. "You can't really jam it over on the side of the living room, although some have tried that."

For information about the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, visit www.dhs.state.or.us/publichealth/mm/index.cfm Don Colburn: 503-294-5124; doncolburn@news.oregonian.com