Committee begins shaping Oregon pot law

SALEM — Oregon's new law approving marijuana dispensaries was deliberately written vaguely, with the idea that the nitty-gritty details would be hashed out later.

That time has come, and a 13-person committee that includes police chiefs, botanists and legislators met for the first time Friday in Salem to try to fill in the law's specifics.

One thing clear from deliberations and public comments at the nearly four-hour hearing: The work will be neither quick nor easy.

The law is Oregon's first that allows marijuana dispensaries, which operate now in a kind of legal gray area, and it's scheduled to go into effect in March. The law gives the committee the power to create the rules for dispensaries, and the committee agreed Friday to try to have them in place by December.

Among the concerns of patients and growers is how they'll afford now-required plant testing for mold, pesticides and fungi — potentially fatal to patients with compromised immune systems.

Law enforcement members questioned whether criminal-background checks will really be performed on the actual day-to-day managers of the dispensaries, rather than the person with the cleanest criminal record, and wondered how the law would address dispensaries that refuse to register and operate in violation of the rules.

"What if they just don't play ball?" said Lincoln County District Attorney Rob Bovett. "We need an administrative process to deal with that."

And everyone wondered how, with a budget of less than $1 million, the program will pay for itself.

The biggest driver of costs to the state is expected to be the inspections of dispensaries conducted by the Oregon Health Authority, the agency in charge of the program. Among the ideas floated at the meeting was to charge fees based on the cost of inspections, divided by the number of facilities applying for licenses.

The committee anticipates getting about 100 applications at the outset of the law, which is intended to create so-called safe access points for patients, especially for those who need marijuana as medicine but are unable to find a grower willing or able to supply them with pot.

Even among that subcategory of people, marijuana activist John Sajo said in public comments that there would be low-income, homebound patients unable to reach dispensaries.

"Every regulation is going to raise the price (of marijuana)," Sajo said. "The neediest and lowest-income and worst off health-wise could get left behind."

Sajo said some model of the law that includes a delivery system to patients could help avoid that problem.

One question crucial to the law's future is how dispensaries are treated and regulated in the future. Are they akin to bars, which are similarly regulated by a central state agency — the Oregon Liquor Control Commission — or are they more like pharmacies?

Corvallis Police Chief Jim Sassaman said he wonders whether local or county governments could expressly forbid dispensaries from opening, an idea similar to "dry" counties that forbid the sale of alcohol.

"There's going to be some unavoidable tweaks," Bovett said. "I think there's going to be a punch list of things we have to fix with this bill."

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