Esquivel makes push to consolidate pot bills

Legislators have proposed nearly a dozen bills that backers say are aimed at fine-tuning Oregon's Medical Marijuana Program and stopping activities that have led to confusion and numerous arrests across the state.

"We need to take the best parts of all of them and put them together in one bill," state Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said Tuesday.

Esquivel, sponsor of House Bill 3202, which he said would reduce abuse of the program approved by voters in 1998, has asked the co-chairs of the judiciary as well as the health and human services committees to consider his proposal.

"Collectively we can come up with the best bill this way," he said of the seven House bills and four Senate bills. "Maybe one bill lacks something or maybe there are some provisions in my bill or someone else's bill that needs to be included in the final. They all need to be brought out into the open and discussed."

The point, he said, is not to do away with the program but to improve it.

"I don't dispute we need the program — there are people who need it as a medication," he said. "But I also think there is some abuse going on in the program now."

But Robert Wolfe, director of the Oregon Marijuana Policy Initiative, which represents a coalition of medical marijuana advocacy groups in the state, believes the bills are intended to severely limit and even dismantle Oregon's Medical Marijuana Program.

"This bill (3202) in particular would roll back the program in many areas that would disqualify a lot of people, and make it more difficult for people to get their medicine," he said Tuesday afternoon.

"A bunch of these legislators are attempting to gut Oregon's very popular and voter-approved program," he added. "HB 3202 is one of the bills that would accomplish the job."

The bills all call for cutting thousands of patients from the program, making it harder for new patients to obtain doctor-approved medical marijuana cards for conditions such as AIDS and cancer, he said.

In addition, they would dramatically reduce the amount of medical marijuana a patient may possess, cut the number of plants a patient may grow, add new restrictions on who is eligible for the program and allow much greater access into private homes by law enforcement officials, he said.

"There are two kinds of people smoking marijuana in Oregon," he said. "There are those who go to the black market and ignore the law. Then there are the people who want to legally participate in the program to get their medicine.

"To kick them out of the system that is self-funding and punish them by making them go to the black market doesn't make any sense," he added. "There is no need for it."

Many of the bills would also require a background check on all the medical marijuana cardholders in the state, some 80,000, he said, noting his group estimates that would cost about $7.5 million.

"We are going to show up for every hearing on every bill and oppose them with all our energy," said Wolfe, whose coalition includes NORML, Oregon Green Free, Pro-Oregon and Voter Power.

But Esquivel, noting he has worked with Jackson County officials on his bill, welcomes opinions.

"I think there is support across the aisle and across the chambers for this," he said. "We all understand we have some correcting to do in the program."

For instance, he wants a primary care physician to be involved in the application process, those convicted of a felony involving controlled substances not allowed to obtain a medical marijuana card and greater restrictions placed on the number of plants that can be grown by a cardholder or caregiver.

However, he urges that everyone wanting to participate in the debate be civil to each other.

"I had one adult call and rip my head off," he said, noting he eventually hung up on her. "But everyone else has been very articulate with common sense and down to earth."

His goal is to come up with a workable bill in this session.

"But it needs to be done right," he said. "There is no sense in creating a bad bill. Right now, there are some good points in each bill. We just need to bring them all together."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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