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Oregon Charts Course Out Of Medical Marijuana’s Box Canyon


new approach oregon marijuana legalizationAs Oregon has recently passed a number of bills improving both medical marijuana and lessening penalties for recreational marijuana, one of my Twitter followers asked me how that informs my opinion of the medical marijuana “Box Canyon” I’ve been charting for years.

If anything, passage of these bills in Oregon validates everything I’ve ever said about the Box Canyon.

The Box Canyon is the idea that the arc of the fight for medical marijuana is inevitably going to bend toward cannabinoid pharmaceuticals and away from legal use of the whole plant. So long as reformers fight only for medical marijuana and eschew any connection with legalization for recreational use, the frames of “medical” and “medicine” are going to push the development of cannabis into forms recognized by the mainstream medical community – sprays, pills, inhalers – and away from the “crude, smoked plant” the mainstream denigrates.

Plant Limit TrendsThe last seven states and the next two states debating medical marijuana bills have created “dispensary only” measures (with some exceptions in Arizona and Massachusetts) where medical marijuana patients are not allowed to grow their own medicine. Instead, tightly licened growers supply marijuana under strict regulations to highly-secured dispensaries that sell it at prices greater than necessary, in order to ensure dispensaries don’t undercut the black market.

Soon enough, the FDA and Big Pharma will develop remarkable cannabis medications that are as good or more effective than raw cannabis, without that undesirable side effect we call “high”. Then, the state will begin to replace all the plant marijuana at dispensaries with the FDA-approved, insurance-covered, Big Pharma cannaceuticals. Truly needy patients will welcome these medicines, as they will be more affordable than the artifically-expensive marijuana, and those who clamor for the plant will re-join the recreational consumers in the public’s condemnation of “stoners who just want to get high”.

So what happened in Oregon, and how does it validate the Box Canyon?  Recently, the governor of Oregon signed (or will sign) bills that accomplish the following:

  • Adds post-traumatic stress (PTSD) to the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana use;
  • Creates a system of dispensaries for medical marijuana;
  • Eliminates the suspension of driver’s license as a penalty for a less-than-one-ounce marijuana infraction;
  • Reduces the penalty for possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana from a 10 year felony to a 6 month misdemeanor;
  • Reduces the penatly for possession of up to 1/4 ounce of hashish from a 10 year felony to a 6 month misdemeanor;
  • Reduces the penatly for possession of over 4 ounces of marijuana from a 10 year felony to a 5 year felony;
  • Reduces the penalty for cultivation of marijuana from a 20 year felony to a 10 year felony.

Oregon expanded access to medical marijuana and reduced penalties for recreational marijuana, but these accomplishments happened in large part thanks to activism for recreational legalization in 2012.  Indeed, activists in Oregon have twice attempted to pass a dispensary measure by initiative and have been defeated by the voters both times.  Following those defeats, positive momentum for marijuana reform in the legislature nearly stopped.  Only after near-success with a wide-open legalization measure, coupled with passage of a stricter legalization in neighboring Washington, did our legislature take up pro-marijuana measures with such zeal.

That’s not to dismiss the hard work of medical marijuana activists in Oregon.  Activists’ biggest victory against the Box Canyon was negotiating for increasing the plant limit from 7 to 24 plants back in 2005 (and, believe it or not, some activists fought against that!) Indeed, the community showed its strength by destroying the campaign of establishment-backed Dwight Holton for Attorney General in favor of the pro-medical marijuana Ellen Rosenblum, whose endorsement of the dispensary measure likely helped win its passage.  However, medical marijuana activists in Oregon, for the most part, don’t make any secret of their activism for full legalization.  Legislators, especially Democrats, now have to fear their anti-pot votes will cost them an election.

It is the threat of successful legalization that has pushed these Oregon legislators to make Oregon one of the best state medical marijuana programs this year with an eye toward legalization in 2014.  Proof of this power of even failed legalization to create political momentum for lower recreational penalties can be found just south of Oregon.

In 2010, California was pushing Prop 19 to legalize marijuana and polls were showing support in the upper fifty-percent range, despite a lack of big money funding for a proper campaign push.  This led the California legislature to hurry a bill to Gov. Schwarzenegger to decriminalize marijuana in the state in order to temper some of the strongest motivation for legalization – the waste of money.

“I am signing this measure because possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is an infraction in everything but name,” said Schwarzenegger. “The only difference is that because it is a misdemeanor, a criminal defendant is entitled to a jury trial and a defense attorney. In this time of drastic budget cuts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, and the courts cannot afford to expend limited resources prosecuting a crime that carries the same punishment as a traffic ticket.”

Similarly, passage of the depenalization bills in Oregon is designed to temper some of the support for the inevitable legalization push in 2014.  No longer can activists point out that Oregon is the only state that goes from a ticket under an ounce to a felony over an ounce – now legalization opponents can claim that up to a quarter pound of marijuana is only a misdemeanor.  Where we might point to the excessive costs of incarcerating pot criminals, they will be able to show how much law enforcement and prison costs dropped 2013-2014 when they reduced the penalties.  Where we might have leveraged concern for America’s veterans’ PTSD as a reason for legalization since the medical law didn’t cover it, now the veterans are covered.  Talk of revenue from quasi-legal dispensaries becoming legal pot shops diminishes now that there will be a cash cow from the legal dispensaries.  And could our legislators be calculating enough to recognize the “I gots mine” syndrome where dispensary operators and medical marijuana clinics in California, Washington, and Colorado openly opposed and bankrolled advertising against legalization initiatives to protect their financial interests?

These aren’t reasons to abandon the fight for legalization in 2014 in Oregon, of course, but the fight just got a little harder.


About Author

Executive Director: Russ Belville has been active in Oregon marijuana reform since 2005, when he was elected second-in-command of the state affiliate, Oregon NORML. After four years with Oregon NORML, Russ was hired by National NORML in 2009, working as Outreach Coordinator and hosting the NORML Daily Audio Stash podcast until 2012. Since then, Russ launched the 420RADIO marijuana legalization network and is the host of The Russ Belville Show, a live daily marijuana news talk radio program. Russ is also a prolific writer, with over 300 articles posted online and in print in HIGH TIMES, Huffington Post, Alternet, The Weed Blog, Marijuana Politics, and more.