Last year, a terrible thing happened to the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. In some last-minute backroom wheeling and dealing, the legislature passed a law to raise the annual fee for a state medical marijuana card from $100 to $200. Also, a new $50 fee was created for patients who wish to designate a person to grow marijuana for them. On top of that, if you have to change your registration for any reason, now there is a new $100 change fee.
Usually state governments raise the fees for their services when there is a shortfall in the program’s budget. Yet in Oregon, the state medical marijuana program always runs a surplus. In the past, on numerous occasions, the state has redirected over a million dollars of medical marijuana program money to shore up ailing budgets for other programs, like Clean Drinking Water or Children’s Health Plan.
What do medical marijuana patients get from the State of Oregon for their $200 – $250 annual fee? A paper card that protects them from arrest. That’s it. The program does not collect statistics on patients, study how medical marijuana works for patients, offer any guidance on how to grow or acquire marijuana, hook-up prospective patients with potential growers, and as of this year, doesn’t even maintain an in-person customer service window that had been a mainstay of the program in the Oregon Bldg. since the program began.
It’s no surprise many Oregon medical marijuana patients refer to the fee as “protection money”, as if they’re paying off a mobster who’s extorting their business, because “we wouldn’t want something bad to happen, kapische?” It’s an apt metaphor, as the state that offers the protection from “something bad” is the same state with the police that will make “something bad” happen if you don’t pay up, paisan.
The shocking thing is the State of Oregon makes no secret of their intentions. They specifically raised the fees for two reasons. One was to shore up the state funds for other programs as I’ve explained but the other is to combat what they call “abuse” of the medical marijuana program, based on the fact that over 50,000 patients have paid the state their “protection money” to the tune of what will now be around $1,000,000 a year.
This “abuse” notion keeps getting echoed in the press, about how the medical marijuana program was only supposed to be for 500 patients, despite the pro argument in the voter’s guide saying “thousands of patients will be helped”. Somehow, 50,000 patients indicates that some must be faking it, despite a quarter of all adults who suffer from recurring pain and despite 17,000 new cancer diagnoses a year in Oregon.
How does doubling the fee reduce the abuse? If you really are the sick, disabled, or terminal patient for whom the program was created, you’re on a limited income or can’t work and the difference between $100 and $200 a year is huge, especially when you consider that doesn’t include the clinic visits and the doctor visits that are also required to establish your legitimacy for medical marijuana use. (You could bring paralyzed Prof. Stephen Hawking to Oregon in his wheelchair, but without medical records showing he’s been diagnosed with ALS, he couldn’t get a medical marijuana recommendation.) Even worse, the state used to allow poor folks on SSI (Social Security), OHP (Oregon Health Plan), or SNAP (our Food Stamps) to pay just $20 for their “protection money”. Now the poor folks’ fee is $100, and they can only qualify under SSI. Yes, the state quintupled the “protection money” for the poorest patients while running surplus after surplus after surplus.
However, if you’re the alleged medical marijuana faker who’s just got a card for his Arrest Anxiety Syndrome so you can party hearty, what’s another $100 to you? You’re well, you work, and you were used to paying $300 for an ounce of weed anyway.
Patients themselves don’t like to see this alleged “abuse” of the program, either, but these exorbitant fees foster more abuse of the system, not less. I was recently told the story of a patient who desperately needed a grower. The state, as I mentioned, has no referral service and dispensaries are illegal (more on that later), so patients like her have to go to CraigsList or activists’ meetings and hope to meet some stranger who will grow her the medicine she needs to live a pain-free life.
So this patient finds a grower who agrees to help her, but only if the patient agrees to name the grower’s girlfriend as her caregiver. Mind you, the girlfriend is in no way caring for the patient in any medical manner, but in Oregon, we get to name a caregiver, who need not be a relative or even live in the same house. Basically, the grower is just trying to keep his girlfriend out of trouble with weed.
No surprise, the grower turns out to actually be a dealer, using the patient’s card to keep him and his girlfriend safe while they grow 24 plants and harvest 6 at a time. The grower is stingy with what by law is the patient’s property – the marijuana – providing her only small amounts every so often, and then insisting on being paid his “reimbursement” of $240 per ounce. OMMA allows growers to recoup expenses for supplies and utilities, but not labor. It costs nowhere near $240 per ounce to grow marijuana, even accounting for labor.
Here’s a clear case of abuse of the medical marijuana program. That abuse would end today if the patient could afford to end it, but she can’t. She’d drop her grower and caregiver today, but she cannot afford the new $100 change fee for her caregiver and another new $50 fee if she finds another grower.
That brings me to the dispensaries. Oregon doesn’t legally have them, but a combination of compassion, entrepreneurship, and outlaw spirit have led many people to open “compassion clubs”, “patient lounges”, “farmers’ markets”, “co-operatives”, and “collectives”. I just prefer the term MWIOs – Money Walks In, Marijuana Walks Out. But there aren’t enough of them and their prices aren’t low enough yet for most patients to get enough access to their medicine, forcing them into a charcoal-gray area of the law, dependent on the luck of drawing a grower who’s not a criminal, and then paying the state $50 for the privilege.
Thus, Oregon profits when patients can’t get medicine. Oregon profits when growers abuse patients. But worst of all, Oregon profits when the federal government raids the MWIOs that some patients have used to avoid the pitfalls of having a grower.
Southern Oregon NORML’s Lori Duckworth sent me an estimate of the patients affected by the latest DEA raids of “High Hopes” and other medical marijuana providers. She figures 500 patients were dependent on these providers, which means the State of Oregon profits another $50,000 when they all have to pay their $100 change fee. This means the State of Oregon has a profit motive for assisting the feds when they want to go after Oregon medical marijuana.
All these estimates of profit, however, may be a bit steep. Many patients aren’t bothering to pay their “protection money” anymore and returning to their pre-1998 solutions to their medical issues, that is, the black market and risks of danger, arrest, and imprisonment.