More than 36,000 Oregonians are allowed to use marijuana for medical purposes. But they can’t legally buy the drug.
They have to grow it themselves or find a caregiver to grow it for them.
Backers of a measure on this November’s ballot want to change that and they want to do it by following California’s lead.
California is brimming with medical marijuana dispensaries. But sponsors of Oregon’s Measure 74 say it takes a more conservative approach to storefront pot sales. Chris Lehman headed south to see what lessons California has for Oregon.
This is the sound of a drug deal.
Clerk: “Okay, with tax, $21.65”
It’s late afternoon at The Green Heart, a medical marijuana dispensary in Mount Shasta, California. A steady stream of customers comes in the door of the basement shop.
They sit in a waiting room until a clerk examines their ID. Once approved, they’re invited into a second curtained-off room to make their purchase.
I wasn’t allowed behind that curtain, but the clerk agreed to put my tape recorder on the counter so I could listen in.
Clerk: “We got some joints. Did you want one? I know you’re a joint guy.”
In just over ten minutes, a half-dozen customers buy nearly $240 worth of pot. One of them is Tim Scarbrough, who says he’s an Army veteran who injured his knee during a training accident.
He says marijuana helps control the pain. And he says he can’t grow this much at home.
Tim Scarborough: “This place is a convenience. Right now my plants ain’t even close to being mature to harvest. I still have another month, month and a half before I could do that.”
Another customer, Terri Barton, tells me she has bipolar disorder but says she’s been using pot since her early teens, long before California voters approved medical marijuana in 1996.
She says it’s much easier to shop at the dispensary than buy it on the street. Barton insists that marijuana helps her condition but can’t really explain how.
Terri Barton: “I don’t know the details of the plant. It’s medicine for me. I buy it in a little sack, and I consume it by smoking it. Can I get three grams of the cheapest you got?”
The Green Heart is one of three marijuana dispensaries in this northern California town. It’s a different story just up the road in Yreka, where the City Council has banned them altogether.
City Manager Steve Baker says dispensaries don’t fit the family-friendly image the city is trying to create.
Steve Baker: “We’re looking at a storefront where people advertise. They’re encouraging the use, possibly, well beyond the original intent of the use of medical marijuana.”
It’s the same slippery slope argument made by law enforcement organizations in Oregon.
Sheriffs, police chiefs and district attorneys have all come out against Measure 74. They say giving the green light to marijuana storefronts will lead to more abuse of the drug by making it more available.
And Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin says medical pot dispensaries can be targets for crime.
Tom Bergin: “And if somebody thinks that they can rip somebody off for something or stick a gun in somebody’s face, if they think they can make a quick buck on the street, they’re gonna do it.”
He points to Los Angeles, where two employees at separate marijuana dispensaries were murdered in June. And at The Green Heart in Mount Shasta, where we took you earlier, thieves broke in and stole $10,000 of merchandise and cash in July.
Two men were charged in the case last month. But the potential for crime isn’t Sheriff Bergin’s only problem with Measure 74.
Tom Bergin: “Is this about pain or is this about profit? The final outcome, what they’re really hoping for, is just total legality of another drug into our society.”
In fact, California voters will be deciding in November whether to legalize marijuana and not just for medical purposes. But supporters of the Oregon dispensary measure say that’s not on the agenda here.
And in fact they say Measure 74 includes many more safeguards against abuse: Criminal background checks for employees.
Dispensaries and growers would have to register with the state. That’s not required in California. And unlike California, medical marijuana users in Oregon are required to carry state-issued cards.
One of Measure 74’s chief petitioners, Alice Ivany, says Oregon can learn from what she sees as California’s mistakes.
Alice Ivany: “We’re trying to legitimize this. We’re trying to take the concern away from the public with having inspections on these specific gardens. We’re having dispensaries inspected.”
To Ivany, allowing a corner shop that sells marijuana is about compassion — compassion for people with chronic illnesses who have a hard time getting medication.
She says when she first started growing marijuana to treat her chronic pain, she had no idea what she was doing. Ivany says it took her nearly a year and a half to grow some usable marijuana.
Alice Ivany: “I didn’t really water them or feed them, and they got bugs. And they literally looked like Charlie Brown Christmas trees. And by the time I was done, I had a total of three ounces to last a whole year.”
She says that’s less than a quarter of what she needs. Now, she’s able to keep herself supplied but calls the dispensary measure an insurance policy for when she and other patients aren’t able to grow their own.
How much would the new marijuana regulations cost Oregon to enforce? Official estimates say the 10 percent cut that the state would get from marijuana sales would more than offset the cost of regulating Oregon’s system of dispensaries.
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