June 05, 2017 | NORTHWEST LEAF
By Matthew Meyers.
It’s no secret that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) is inching its way toward absorbing the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) under its authority (see my last article about HB 2198 in the April issue on page 22). A recent decision by the OLCC to allow licensed producers to bump up their canopy size to also grow for medical patients and dispensaries could signal the beginning of the end for the OMMP program as we know it. There is a lot of room for improvement with both the adult use and medical programs in this state, so I remain hopeful that both programs will improve after the transition, but as a medical patient myself, I am worried about having the OLCC—an organization focused on recreational consumption drugs—will be regulating critical decisions about my medicine.
According to an April 28 OLCC press release, “The bump allows OLCC producer licensees to grow medical marijuana for registered OMMP cardholders at the same location as their producer license. OLCC licensees participating in the bump up will not be registered with the Oregon Health Authority (OHA). Those participating in the bump up can grow marijuana specifically for OLCC commercial purposes and can grow additional marijuana that is intended for registered OMMP cardholders only.”
On one hand this change is terrifying for OMMP growers because it’s one more advantage that recreational has over a medical license; however this is a smart move because a lot of patients lost their growers when they flipped their license to recreational and the OMMP capped the number of patient cards per grow. With the bump up, those growers can still produce medicine for their patients without having to register a different grow site! So, like everything in life, this change comes with good and bad aspects. It alone doesn’t alarm me but it’s important to understand this move in the context of the last year of frustrating changes to the OMMP.
The first blow to the OMMP was disguised as a blessing, when the state allowed all OMMP dispensaries to temporarily sell to the adult public. This initially went well, dispensaries that had been struggling finally had enough cash flow to stay afloat and expand. But things quickly started to turn south as more OMMP dispensaries started popping up. As you’d expect in a market with only 65,000 patients, adult use sales took over as the driving force in the market, which puts dispensary owners in a difficult position when the temporary system came to an end and the choice between recreational and medical had to be made.
By allowing licensed OLCC dispensaries to also sell to OMMP patients at a discount, suddenly there were very few reasons to keep a dispensary in the OMMP program. According to April OMMP numbers, there are only 93 licensed OMMP dispensaries still operating in Oregon. Over the last two years the average number of OMMP renewal applications was 22 per month. However, since the beginning of the year there have only been two renewals submitted. Demonstrating a huge shift by dispensaries toward the OLCC market. However, this drastic decline isn’t reflected in the patient renewal numbers, so it’s important to note this isn’t a shift away from medical Cannabis but rather a shift in how it’s acquired. With more than 60,000 registered OMMP patients there is clearly still a huge portion of the population using Cannabis medicinally.
The glaring issue with this ‘bump up’ program is that it removes any motivation for producers to stay in the OMMP, and producers determine the future direction of the market! Personally, what I worry about is that when the two markets are combined there is a profit incentive to move product from medical into the recreational market. As adult use consumers are less price sensitive than patients are. Also, there is the risk that supply of good medicine will be so low that even if it all stays in the medical market, the average patient won’t be able to afford as much medicine as they need to find relief.
According to a press release from the OLCC, “Steven Marks, the Commission’s executive director said the agency would monitor patients’ ability to obtain their medicine—especially those with serious illnesses—and act to ensure patient access to medicine either in partnership with the OHA, or within the OLCC’s own rulemaking authority.”
Marks also mentions the effort to bring the state-run Cannabis program into full compliance with the Cole memo to ensure that the feds stay hands-off.
To get better insight into what an OLCC-regulated medical program would be like, I spoke with Mark Pettinger at the OLCC who made it clear that the OLCC won’t know if it will take over medical until legislators have signed all the details into law; but if and when the OLCC gets word it will handle medical, it will work quickly (just as it did for recreational) to bring together consensus of the industry and patients to ensure the system works for everyone. If that were to happen, the OLCC would require additional staff and resources to handle the new workflow, which could result in parts of the system still being handled by the OHA and parts being rolled over into the OLCC. One thing is clear though: we won’t know for sure what the system will look like until our legislators have signed the law.
Marks assured me that the OLCC is well aware of the importance of the medical Cannabis program in Oregon. He also mentioned that they understand that some patients require flexibility within the regulatory framework, but didn’t go into any specifics as to how exceptions would be managed. We both agreed that open dialogue is needed to create the best system. To stay updated on official OLCC news, Marks recommends signing up for the OLCC listserv located at marijuana.oregon.gov.
As the movement to roll the OMMP into the OLCC continues to build momentum, it’s more important than ever to reach out to your community leaders in the legislator and make sure they understand your concerns about the future of medical Cannabis in Oregon. Unfortunately, we cannot go back to before Measure 91, our only option is to make sure that whatever system gets developed prioritizes safe and affordable access to medicine for all patients.