It isn't reefer madness: Oregonians using medical marijuana law

January 28, 2005

EDITORIAL, Register-Guard

The popularity of Oregon's medical marijuana program is being read as confirmation of its success, and as proof of its vulnerability to abuse. There are causes for concern, but none for alarm. The state is not in the grip of reefer madness.

According to the state Department of Human Services' quarterly report on the medical marijuana program, nearly 10,000 people have been issued cards allowing them or their caregivers to grow small amounts of marijuana for personal use in the treatment of chronic pain, nausea or other conditions. That's many more than was predicted when voters approved the medical marijuana law in 1998. Two physicians account for nearly half the medical marijuana cards issued in the state.

Those are troubling pieces of information. The department's report implies that a few doctors will sign a medical marijuana card application for anyone who asks. Under those circumstances, it's a safe bet that more than a few of the nearly 10,000 cardholders are citing vague or non-existent medical problems as cover for recreational marijuana use.

Yet there's also evidence that the medical marijuana law is being widely used as intended. The department reports that 1,576 doctors have signed applications for medical marijuana cards. Toss out the two who have signed 4,579 between them, and those that remain have signed an average of three applications apiece. This suggests that an overwhelming majority of Oregon physicians are cautious about allowing their patients to gain access to medical marijuana. At the same time, it shows that hundreds of physicians recognize that marijuana has unique palliative value for some patients.

What's more, two doctors have been disciplined by the Oregon Board of Medical Examiners after signing thousands of medical marijuana card applications. It's likely that these are the two responsible for nearly half the cards issued in Oregon, though it's impossible to be certain - the state does not identify physicians participating in the medical marijuana program. In any case, the state has shown an ability to police the application process and has probably already dealt with its high-volume application signers.

Oregon's medical marijuana law isn't easy to use. A doctor must attest that the patient has a 'debilitating medical condition' such as AIDS or cancer, or is suffering from such symptoms as severe pain, nausea or muscle spasms. No trafficking in marijuana is allowed; a cardholder or a caregiver may possess no more than three mature and four immature marijuana plants. These limits ensure that any abuses will be on a small scale. In November voters defeated a proposal to loosen the medical review and increase the quantities that cardholders may legally possess.

Giving patients access to a drug that many claim is uniquely effective has not opened the doors to unrestricted marijuana use or possession. At a time when the state is battling a methamphetamine epidemic, any abuses that have occurred in the medical marijuana program do not rank among the state's most serious drug problems. Oregonians should keep an eye on the medical marijuana program, but for now, no urgent action is required.

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