Key Dems played politics with marijuana dispensaries bill

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

The saga of Maryjane dispensaries was performed on the legislative stage throughout the 2014 session. The tale would actually be comedy if the subjects were not so serious and if some of the characters were not such bad actors.

The 2013 legislature amended ORS 475 to authorize the Oregon Health Authority to register medical marijuana dispensaries throughout Oregon. The law also prohibited county and city governments from regulating medical marijuana.

I voted against that law for a number of reasons.

In my opinion, registered medical marijuana dispensaries represent the final step in the progression before authorizing the legal retailing of marijuana products. The current law allowed virtually unregulated infusion of marijuana and its extracts into a variety of food products such as candy, cookies, cake, brownies and other sweet bakery items.

Marijuana, in any form, continues to be classified as an illegal drug under federal law. I believe the Legislature has no legal right to force cities and counties to issue business licenses to entities that manufacture and sell illegal drugs in their jurisdictions.

Political leaders in a great number of Oregon cities and counties were also aghast at this new law. They knew that there were more than 250 applications to establish medical marijuana dispensaries in just the first two months of eligibility. It was clearly understood that the approximately 60 thousand Oregon medical marijuana card holder could not support even that many retail locations. The local leaders considered the registration of medical marijuana dispensaries little less than outright authorization for the retail sale of marijuana and marijuana infused food products in their communities.

For that reason, many city and county political leaders asked for a bill that would provide Oregon cities and counties authority for local regulation of these marijuana shops. In response to that request, Senator Bill Hansell pre-session filed SB 1531.

The bill authorized cities and counties to adopt ordinances to regulate or prohibit registration of medical marijuana dispensaries in their jurisdictions. It prohibited medical marijuana dispensaries from being located at marijuana grow sites. The bill also allowed for local jurisdictions to regulate the storage and dispensing of marijuana products in a registered dispensary.

SB 1531 was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee where it was functionally eviscerated.

As amended by Committee-chair Floyd Prozanski, the bill still allowed a county to impose restrictions on marijuana facilities. However, it provided that any restrictions must impose “reasonable” limitations on the hours that a medical marijuana facility may operate, “reasonable” limitations on the hours of operation, “reasonable” zoning restrictions, and “reasonable” conditions on the dispensing of medical marijuana. The word “reasonable” was not defined in the bill and, to my knowledge, is not defined in Oregon statutes.

Further, the committee chair refused to adopt amendments to regulate the infusion of marijuana or marijuana extracts into food products that are inherently attractive to small children. Not only is marijuana known to be especially addictive to children and teenagers but in unregulated concentrations it can be poisonous.

SB 1531 passed through the Senate unanimously for two reasons. The bill was a little better than no local control. More important, the adults on the House Judiciary Committee had promised they would amend the bill to restore its original intent.

Under the leadership of Chair Jeff Barker, the House committee did further amend SB 1531 to allow the cities and counties to adopt ordinances that either prohibit or regulate medical marijuana facilities. The Committee added the prohibition of the sale of marijuana infused products unless the product’s packaging is not attractive to minors and complies with child safety packaging as established by agency rule. The amendment further prohibited locating a medical marijuana dispensary at a marijuana grow site.

The Committee knew that the amended bill had strong bipartisan support and would easily pass if allowed a vote on the House floor. They unanimously voted the amended bill to the House floor with a “do pass” recommendation.

Unfortunately, House Speaker Tina Kotek and her Democrat leadership did not support the amended version of SB 1531, even though they should have known it would easily pass if allowed a vote. They employed procedural manipulations for three floor sessions in order to prevent that vote by the full House of Representatives. They delayed until they were able to gain the majority of Representatives present that was required to refer SB 1531 back to the House Rules Committee.

Once the House Rules Committee had possession of SB 1531, Kotek and her colleagues further amended the bill. The ability of local governments to prohibit or regulate medical marijuana dispensaries was limited to allowing a city or county to adopt ordinances enacting a moratorium on operations of registered marijuana facilities. The moratorium must be enacted no later than May 1, 2014 and can only be in affect until May 1, 2015.

SB 1531 subsequently passed out of the House with 51 yes votes. It was then returned to the Senate for a vote to concur with the House amendments. Apparently, the Senate Democrat Caucus must have pressured Senate Judiciary Chair Floyd Prosanski to agree to the House amendments that recreated much of what he had stripped out of the original bill. The Eugene Senator did recommend adopting the House amendments and the Senate concurred on a 28-2 vote.

Governor Kitzhaber signed the bill into Oregon law on March 19, 2014. The emergency clause made it take effect on that date.

In my opinion, reducing the ability of local jurisdictions to prohibit medical marijuana dispensaries to the year-long moratorium was a political punt. Certain influential Democrats opposed an outright prohibition. They also did not want to vote against the prohibition in an election year. The wording of the new law makes it virtually certain that the issue will be revisited by the next Legislature starting three months after the fall election.

The next act of Oregon’s medical marijuana political drama will be played in the spring of 2015.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls