Will Medical and Recreational Cannabis Be Kept Separate in Oregon?

Medical Marijuana vs. Recreational Marijuana: It's a Veritable War Out There
Medical Marijuana vs. Recreational Marijuana: It’s a Veritable War Out There

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, every state with existing medical marijuana laws that implements a parallel recreational regime will, at some point, have to grapple with whether the two industries should merge into one. Cue Oregon and its current dialogue over what to do about the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) and the state’s upcoming implementation of Measure 91, its recreational marijuana law.

Oregon is a bit of an oddball when it comes to regulation of medical marijuana since its legislature did not quite go all the way in providing industry oversight for the OMMP as only medical marijuana dispensaries (not growers and manufacturers) have to abide by Oregon Health Authority (OHA) regulations. As the result of a quasi-overhaul of the OMMP in 2013, the Oregon legislature opted to regulate only its medical cannabis dispensaries, leaving growers and manufacturers of medical marijuana pretty much unregulated and leaving patients without any quality assurance standards, verifiable product tracking, or thorough vetting process by the OHA. Under Measure 91, Oregon will likely have strict regulations covering advertising, seed-to-sale tracking requirements, quality assurance, packaging and labeling, and security (just to name a few).

So, how will Oregon harmonize its medical and recreational industries? If the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) has its way, the two will be kept completely separate. Furthermore, according to The Oregonian, “if medical marijuana dispensary owners want to join the recreational cannabis market, the [OLCC] wants to make sure they’re tracking everything on the shelves from the start of production until it is sold,” and such tracking is not currently required for any medical marijuana business in Oregon.

Currently, there are 223 state-licensed medical dispensaries under the OMMP. On the recreational side, the OLCC has yet to issue to the public its first set of draft rules under Measure 91. Nonetheless, members of the OLCC have made clear that the co-location of medical and recreational cannabis operations in Oregon will not happen under its watch unless all cannabis comes through a regulated system tracked by the OLCC. Consequently, “one of the biggest issues facing Oregon lawmakers [is] whether to leave the popular medical marijuana program alone or fold it in some way into the regulated recreational market.”

Dealing with dual marijuana systems has never been easy, as Colorado and Washington are coming to find out. The one guiding set of principles on which all states with dual marijuana systems can rely is the August 2013 Cole memo. The no-brainer for states in the position of Oregon, Colorado, and Washington is that any marijuana program needs to abide by the eight tenets of the Cole memo — unregulated medical marijuana programs like those of California, Washington, and Oregon simply will not pass muster under that memo. Just standing alone, an inability to trace marijuana product should and likely eventually will trigger the ire of the Feds. This means that state legislatures everywhere must decide whether they want equally highly regulated dual systems or one strictly regulated system for both the recreational public and for legitimate medical patients. With politics and economics in play, this is a difficult decision for states and it is even worse for marijuana entrepreneurs who will face uncertain competition from their unregulated counterparts and/or the financial burden of having to run two different marijuana operations under two different regulatory regimes.

Even though Measure 91 explicitly states that the OMMP will go untouched by the OLCC, the legislature need not abide by this directive. Just like Washington, Oregon must decide whether to keep its medical program and ratchet up its regulations on growers and producers or scrap its existing medical program altogether or roll it into Measure 91 in some shape or form. Though Washington State is clearly leaning towards one regulated marijuana regime for medical and recreational, it is at this point anyone’s guess as to how this will play out in Oregon.

Regardless of the decision, patients and marijuana businesses will likely find themselves in the ever-changing middle.