For years, the medical marijuana industry in Oregon flourished unchecked, making up its own rules and counting on the tolerance of neighbors and law enforcement to survive.
But now the industry has the state to deal with.
More than 100 medical marijuana dispensary representatives gathered in downtown Portland Saturday to complain, question and comment on the new law governing retail sales of medical cannabis. For more than two hours, dispensary owners, their employees and marijuana growers peppered Tom Burns, the dispensary program director, with detailed questions about how to meet the state’s 31 pages of rules, which spell out everything from security requirements to product packaging and lab testing.
The Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the state agency responsible for overseeing the production and sale of recreational cannabis if voters approve marijuana legalization this fall, is closely watching the rollout of the dispensary program. Oregon officials view the medical marijuana dispensary program as a potential framework for state-regulated recreational marijuana.
The Oregon Legislature last year passed a law directing the state health authority to create a registry of medical marijuana facilities and draft rules to govern the way they operate. Since March, the state has licensed 138 establishments.
State regulators have made unannounced visits to about two dozen of them, closing one in Portland, where flagrant violations were so “egregious,” said Burns, that the establishment was immediately shuttered.
“You’ve got consumption on premises, you have unlocked doors, you have people wandering in without (medical marijuana) cards and you are dispensing to them; that is a major violation and we will revoke” the license to operate, he said.
Burns made clear that regulators aren’t looking to shut down dispensaries.
“We don’t want to be looked at as the Gestapo coming in to close you down,” he said. “We want you to be successful and to meet the letter and the rule of the law.”
Erin Kennedy, one of state’s three medical marijuana dispensary inspectors, walked the gathering through an inspection checklist: Does the shop’s video surveillance record 30 days of activity? Are products properly labeled and packaged? Does the dispensary ensure each customer has a valid Oregon medical marijuana card?
Regulators also audit marijuana in the shop to make sure employees can account for everything that’s come in and out. Their chief concern is ensuring marijuana isn’t leaving the store and leaking into the black market.
“If you brought in 100 of these and you say you sold 50, there better be 50 of these in the box,” said Burns, holding up a marijuana-infused candy someone brought to the event. “If there isn’t, then they are going some place else.”
Though the state spent months drafting rules for the program, it was clear from Saturday’s forum that many issues remain unclear or weren’t anticipated.
Some questions raised by dispensary owners included: Can a medical marijuana dispensary continue to operate if a school opens next door? (No.) Can a dispensary sell medical marijuana in a container that’s not childproofed if the consumer is elderly, has arthritis and isn’t around children? (No.) Does the dispensary have to have its supply of medical marijuana lab tested or does that responsibility fall to the grower? (The dispensary.)
And there were more: Can a dispensary give away marijuana-infused cookies donated by a grower or patient? (No.) Can dispensary staff sell marijuana to a patient who has been approved for a state-issued medical marijuana card but has not received it yet? (No.) Can a dispensary sell marijuana seeds to a grower? (No.)
Burns acknowledged he couldn’t answer every question, like what should a dispensary do with cannabis that turns up positive for pesticides and mold. Return it to the grower, Burns said. But, asked one business representative, what if the dispensary can’t track down the grower?
Burns, a genial bureaucrat quick to acknowledge his lack of familiarity with marijuana, its use and culture, expressed surprise. In that case, he wasn’t sure what to do.
“There really are growers who just fall off the face of the earth?” he asked, as some in the crowded nodded.
Burns said the forum underscored the novelty of regulating medical marijuana in Oregon.
“The system didn’t exist 11 months ago,” said Burns. “We put something together that worked. You guys are operating. We are doing inspections. We are providing safe medicine to the patients.
“Is it perfect? Absolutely not. There are a whole lot of holes and you guys have identified a lot of them today.”
The forum gave industry representatives a chance to hear concerns from other dispensary owners, said Jake Boone, a manager at Apothecaria in Cottage Grove, where Boone also sits on the city council. It helps the industry to speak with a unified voice about the issues that matter most to dispensary operators, said Boone, who has never tried marijuana but is a longtime supporter of its legalization.
“It’s been fascinating watching an industry invent itself,” he said.
— Noelle Crombie
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