Politics, Policy and Legal Pot

Almost four years since dispensaries across Oregon threw open their doors for the first time in the summer of 2015, the legal marijuana industry has brought in over $80 million in tax revenue for the state. It’s also spurred on  conversations about how to better incorporate legal pot into the state economy, including ideas about creating interstate marijuana markets.

Growing something new has its own challenges, however. Legalization has created legal snares for business, medicine, and law enforcement that Oregon legislators will try to grapple with this year. Can Oregon residents enjoy marijuana without the threat of losing their jobs? Why don’t we have a cannabis market between Oregon and Washington? What happens to all the pot that Oregonians can’t use?

Weekend Warriors
Senate Bill 379 makes is illegal for employers to prohibit workers from using marijuana when not at work. While it is legal to grow, buy, and sell in Oregon, plenty of businesses will still deny and terminate employment for testing positive to marijuana use. Critics of the bill argue that it’s dangerous for heavy-machine industries and transportation, which “require attention and sobriety.” In the case of interstate truckers, they are required to pass drug tests, as they move goods across multiple state lines.

Many employers do business with, or have other legal relationships with the federal government which would make any stance other than prohibition a problematic one. Others worry about the lack of an easy sobriety test for marijuana, and an inability for tests to screen whether the drug was used either hours or days ago.

A Different Green Economy
Senate Bill 582 would allow the governor to create agreements with other states to buy and sell marijuana.  Oregon currently has somewhere near six and a half times as much marijuana as we could theoretically consume in a year. As much as Oregonians would no doubt enjoy the challenge, the state believes they could benefit more from creating an interstate market with places like Washington, and help keep prices from falling further.

Supporters of the bill cite the flocking of talent to Oregon’s marijuana industry, and warned the state not to waste the chance to turn Oregon into “the Napa of cannabis.” However, even though marijuana trade between Oregon and Washington would not cross any other states in which it is still illegal, U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy J. Williams told reporters last week that “the bill does not change the fact that transporting marijuana across state lines is a federal crime.”

Last week, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland) introduced twin bills to respective chambers, known as Senate/House Bill 420. These bills seek to create legal space for states to create legal cannabis markets without the threat of federal prosecution, but similar bills in previous years have (                      ).                                 

Backlog Leaks into Black Market
Marijuana sales brought in $82 million for the state last year, but apparently none of it is going towards regulating the still-young legal industry. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) who is tasked with regulating the booming cannabis business didn’t see any of that tax money, and policymakers are starting to speak up about overhauling the regulatory and financing systems behind legalization.

The political choices made in passing Measure 91 in 2014 left OLCC significantly underfunded in the task of auditing tens of thousands of growers and retailers. On January 30, Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson released an audit of state cannabis regulation which revealed that OLCC was only able to inspect three percent of retailers and 32 percent of growers. The audit warned that these funding gaps “increase the risk of legal marijuana diverting to the black market.”

Practical Forgiveness
Both Washington and Oregon are considering ways to offer legal forgiveness to those with marijuana-related convictions.

In Washington, Governor Jay Inslee announced the Marijuana Justice Initiative in January of this year, a system to offer pardons to those who have been punished “for something that is no longer an illegal behavior in the state of Washington.” The governor’s office believes about 3,500 people are eligible for the program, which will require petitioners to fill out a web form as well as meeting certain criteria: if they were at least 21 years old at the time of the conviction and whether they have any other charges on their record. Importantly, Inslee’s deputy general counsel, Tip Wonhoff, notes that a pardon and an expungement of one’s record are not the same thing. The governor’s pardon would forgive the related crimes, but they would stay on an individual’s criminal record.

In Oregon, Senator Lew Fredrick (D-Portland) introduced legislation that would be named, entirely by coincidence, Senate Bill 420. This bill would direct the Oregon Department of Justice to actively find and expunge “outdated misdemeanor [marijuana] convictions.” When quizzed about the numbering SB 420, the employee who numbers bills for the Senate clerk’s office asked “What does that mean? Does it mean something?”

Sen. Frederick helped pass 2015’s Senate Bill 364 (SB 364), the legislature’s first pass at forgiving marijuana-related convictions after legalizing the substance in 2014. SB364 also offered to expunge these idiosyncratic convictions, but required those convicted to undergo what Sen. Frederick called a “both long and costly” process to do so. SB 420 places the responsibility on the state to seek out and expunge these records themselves.

“We have a number of people who have convictions…where if they were now carrying the same amount or selling the same amount, or it was in their home, it would not be even considered as a crime,” Sen. Frederick said, “And they are then struggling with housing and education and jobs, et cetera, because of that.”

Frederick says he expects his bill to be seen by the Senate Judiciary Committee soon.

Discrimination or Precaution?
House Bill 2687, introduced by Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland), stops medical providers from recommending that marijuana users be removed from the organ waiting list managed by United Network for Organ Sharing. The bill attempts to address the issue of chronic patients who have decided to use marijuana to ease their symptoms, but the use of which ultimately disqualifies them from transplant lists.

Robin Socherman of West Linn testified to the House Committee on Health Care, saying she wanted to donate her kidney to her husband, who suffers from polycystic kidney disease. Her husband Jake uses marijuana to ease the pain caused by the disease, and therefore cannot receive an organ donation.

Medical professionals reacted strongly to the bill, insisting they don’t turn patients away for marijuana use. They clarified that they do assess transplant candidates on the basis of substance abuse issues and if patients are following the transplant committee’s recommendations, even for those medically prescribed marijuana. Others have cited emerging research on adverse health effects of marijuana use, including kidney, lung, and heart problems.

By Ian MacRonald