Group works to legalize dispensaries

In Oregon, legally smoking "green" requires a green thumb, or knowing someone who does.

Medical marijuana cardholders — even those who are terminally ill — must grow their own marijuana or find someone else to grow it for them, according to state law.

But some local activists are aiming to change that. Voter Power, a medical marijuana activist group with an office in Medford, plans to put a measure on a 2010 ballot to create dispensaries in Oregon, similar to those in California.

"Currently, we have the grower-caregiver patient system, but a lot of patients do not have access to their medicine," said Alex Rogers, outreach coordinator for Voter Power, who works in Jackson County. "They don't have the time or money to grow their own, nor are they connected to someone who does."

Voter Power, which led efforts to legalize medical marijuana 1998, hopes to create a limited number of nonprofit dispensaries where cardholders can receive marijuana.

Under the plan, licensed growers would sell marijuana to the dispensaries, where it will be distributed either at a minimal cost or for free. Customers would need a valid Oregon Medical Marijuana Program card to receive marijuana from dispensaries.

The dispensaries would be taxed and the money would go to other health department programs and help to fund research into medical marijuana, Rogers said. A health department regulated program would also be implemented to help patients get access to marijuana.

Voter Power is collecting signatures for its initiative, which was finalized in August, before it can be placed on an upcoming ballot.

If the dispensary system is approved, patients will still be able to grow their own marijuana or select a grower, Rogers said.

"We have a two part strategy — make the best of the current law and at the same time work for a better law," said John Sajo, Voter Power's executive director. "The OMMA (Oregon Medical Marijuana Program) has done pretty well at stopping most patients from being arrested, but it has not really addressed how the patients are supposed to get their medicine."

Rogers said only half of the 20,000 cardholders in Oregon have safe access to medical marijuana.

Dispensaries are prohibited under current law. The Medical Marijuana Program explains, "There is no place in the State of Oregon to legally purchase medical marijuana."

But in California, where dispensaries are legal in many cities, hundreds of pot shops have sprung up, offering a variety of stains of marijuana and tinctures. Oregon residents should have access to the same array of choices, Rogers said.

However, in recent years the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has raided California dispensaries, in efforts to stop distribution of the drug, which it considers illegal.

"There's problem in California with dispensaries getting shut down on a regular basis," said Sgt. Scott Schuster with the Ashland Police Department. "It's possible that could start happening here."

Schuster said he doesn't believe the federal government has so far intervened in Oregon medical marijuana growing operations.

Rogers said the Oregon initiative would avoid potential federal government raids by strictly regulating dispensaries, ensuring that they pay taxes and operate as nonprofits.

"We feel that if we have a more uniform statewide system it will at least hedge our bets as best as possible. Of course anything can happen, but we've done everything we can to prevent what's happening in California," he said.

Neil Buettner, a registered medical marijuana grower who lives just outside Ashland, said he supports the Voter Power initiative because it would add stability to the system.

"I do think the dispensaries are a good idea. In the past, there have been problems where growers will tell patients that they're going to do this and that, and then they don't. And also, patients can change their growers without ever contacting them, so the grower can be violating the law and not even know it," he said.

The dispensary system would help eliminate those problems, Buettner said.

"I guess the way I understand the new proposition, we got this bill passed the first time, and then (Voter Power) figured out over 10 years what we can do better," he said.

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