Medical marijuana proposal on track for Oregon ballot

June 27, 2004

Brad Cain, Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. — Ailing people who legally use medical marijuana could possess more of it under a measure activists are promoting for Oregon's fall ballot.

The proposed ballot measure contains other changes in the Oregon law, all intended to make it easier for sick people who qualify for the drug to get it.

Sponsors said they are on track to turn in enough petition signatures by Friday's deadline to place the measure on the Nov. 2 statewide ballot.

The measure is opposed by the Bush administration, which calls it a back-door attempt to legalize drugs.

'No family, no community, no city and no state is better off when it makes drugs more available to its young people with these ridiculous propositions,' said Andrea Barthwell, the White House deputy drug czar.

But national organizations that support medical marijuana said the Oregon proposal would be a big step forward for the country by making it possible for more ailing people to legally use marijuana to ease their suffering.

Chief petitioner John Sajo, a longtime medical-marijuana activist, said Oregon's current law is too restrictive.

'We've been trying to make the best of this law for five years, but the whole thing has really broken down' and become unworkable for many patients, Sajo said.

Oregon is among nine states with medical-marijuana laws. The others are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Vermont and Washington state.

California's law is the most broadly written, placing no strict limits on amounts of marijuana patients can possess and giving doctors broader latitude to recommend marijuana for their patients.

Under Oregon's current law, qualified patients are allowed to use and grow small amounts of marijuana without fear of prosecution as long as a doctor says it might help their condition. 

The expansion measure aimed at the Nov. 2 ballot would increase the possession limit from 3 ounces of marijuana to a pound at any one time.

It also would create state-regulated dispensaries authorized to supply up to 6 pounds of marijuana a year to qualified patients.

Further, the initiative would expand the number of health-care professionals who can recommend marijuana for their patients. Now, physicians and osteopaths can do that; the measure would give naturopaths and nurse practitioners that authority.

State records show 8,975 Oregonians hold state-issued cards allowing them to ingest, grow and possess marijuana.

Christopher Campbell, 57, a Portland man who underwent surgery last year for removal of a cancerous, baseball-size tumor in his abdomen, said medical marijuana has made all the difference in his life.

He said the drug helps ease the effects of chemotherapy, allows him to sleep better and enables him to cut in half the amount of narcotic painkillers he uses to keep comfortable.

However, he said the current law doesn't work because many patients find it difficult to grow their own marijuana or find a caregiver to grow it for them.

And the current limit on how much marijuana patients can possess is so low that it leaves many patients constantly scrambling to get enough of the drug, Campbell said.

'There's a screaming need for these changes,' he said.

But the Bush administration doesn't like Oregon's 1998 medical-marijuana law and doesn't like the proposed measure.

Barthwell, the White House deputy drug czar, called Oregon's law a 'Trojan horse' pushed by marijuana activists whose real aim is to eventually have marijuana legalized.

'These people will keep coming back with more expansive and more ridiculous propositions to eliminate all controls on drugs,' Barthwell said in an interview from Washington, D.C.

Oregon law-enforcement officials also are expressing alarm over the proposal to expand the medical-marijuana program.

Marion County District Attorney Dale Penn said that after years of dealing with the Salem area's serious drug problem, he's become convinced marijuana is a 'gateway' drug that leads to use of harder drugs.

He's particularly worried about the measure's provision allowing patients to obtain up to 6 pounds of marijuana a year.

'We've seen abuses of the current system,' Penn said. 'We've seen marijuana sellers and growers who were involved in the illegal narcotics business trying to use the medical-marijuana law as a shield to engage in all kinds of narcotics abuses.'

But a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, said law-enforcement officials are overstating the problem.

Bruce Mirken also said is he hopeful that Oregon voters, after five years of experience with a medical-marijuana law, will give their blessing to an expansion.

'That would hopefully dispel some of the mythology and scare stories that 'All of your kids will become dope fiends and the state will be awash in drugs,' ' Mirken said. 'We know from experience in Oregon that that is not true.'

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