Oregon voters, with the best of intentions, legalized marijuana for medical use in 1998. The system now in place allows Oregonians suffering from various medical conditions to use marijuana to relieve their symptoms if they obtain a medical marijuana card from the state.
The system is not perfect. It allows individual cardholders to grow marijuana for their own use or to designate a caregiver to grow it for them, but it does not allow the sale of marijuana or any distribution except by specific growers to specific patients. This can make it difficult for some patients to obtain the marijuana they need.
The existing system also causes problems for law enforcement officers, who must determine who is and is not authorized to grow or possess marijuana, and whether a grower is producing more than is allowed under the law.
Ballot Measure 74 attempts to remedy this situation by creating a system of licensed dispensaries where patients may obtain the marijuana they need without having to grow it or deal directly with a grower.
We agree the existing system needs to be fixed, but we are not convinced that Measure 74 is the answer. We recommend a no vote.
Measure 74 would solve the existing problem of patients who need better access to the drug. But it would not make the system any less confusing for law enforcement; in fact it would almost certainly make it worse.
The measure would allow nonprofit dispensaries to distribute marijuana to cardholders. It does not say how many dispensaries would be needed, and it does not say where they would be situated, except that "initially dispensaries shall not be established within 1,000 feet of any school or within residential neighborhoods."
Anywhere else, apparently, is a permissible location, and eventually, dispensaries could be situated near schools or in residential neighborhoods. It's not clear why facilities for dispensing medication should be prohibited anywhere, but this language is too vague to be useful to voters trying to make sense of the measure.
The state Department of Human Services would be responsible for creating the system and regulating it, and the measure requires all costs to be paid by fees charged to dispensary operators and producers. No one, including the measure's proponents, can say how much money would be raised or if it would be enough to cover the costs of creating a new bureaucracy.
The measure says dispensary employees would be exempt from prosecution for possessing, distributing or transporting marijuana, regardless of whether they are medical marijuana cardholders. This would be necessary to allow dispensaries to operate, but would increase the likelihood that some of the drug might find its way into the hands of people not authorized to possess it.
That's the real difficulty with this measure and with the entire medical marijuana system: A popular recreational drug is now freely available to some residents and illegal for everyone else. The result is a convoluted system that doesn't always serve the needs of the people it was created to help, and undermines police efforts to enforce the drug laws that apply to the rest of the population.
There are better solutions. One, which is largely out of the hands of Oregonians, is to convince the feds to classify marijuana as a Schedule II drug instead of Schedule I as it's now labeled (along with meth and heroin). That would allow marijuana medicine to be processed and distributed like other prescription drugs. Barring that, a limited system of growers and dispensaries licensed by the state would be easier to manage than a system that has sanctioned thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of marijuana gardens and now proposes an unknown number of dispensaries to be added to the mix.
There's not much doubt what the end game is for most medical marijuana supporters. California will deal with that on Nov. 2, when voters could well declare marijuana legal for every adult in the state. If that happens, there will almost certainly be a campaign asking Oregon voters to do the same.
Legalization would solve many of the problems of the medical marijuana system without having to create a new state bureaucracy. It would also raise an entirely new set of issues for Oregon voters to consider.
We are not prepared to address the question of legalization now, but we suspect it will not be long before we must. In the meantime, voters should just say no to Measure 74.