Bill adds provisions to Medical Marijuana Act

August 03, 2005

Tim O\'Rourke, Oregon Daily Emerald

The smoke hasn’t yet cleared from the debate surrounding a medical marijuana bill waiting to be re-voted on by the Oregon Senate this week.

The House Committee on State and Federal Affairs amended the original medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 1085, to include provisions on workplace issues, and agencies like the ACLU are fuming.

“When this bill passed the Senate it represented a carefully crafted compromise. Unfortunately, the House State and Federal Affairs Committee added a divisive amendment pushed by some employers that undermines the fragile balance of the bill,” the ACLU said in a floor statement to members of the House.

“(It) would eliminate possible legal protection for disabled workers who are registered medical marijuana patients.”

SB 1085 was originally passed in the Senate last month and again with House amendments Aug. 2. The bill’s chief backer, Sen. Bill Morrisette (D-Springfield), was unavailable for comment.

The purpose of the bill was to clarify some ambiguities in Oregon’s medical marijuana law. It called for a 24-hour accessible database and clarified size restrictions on marijuana plants and grow-site definitions, amongother provisions.

With the House-added provisions, SB 1085 would, in part, allow employers to fire employees because they have marijuana in their system, even when there is no evidence of on-the-job impairment.

At press time, the bill was expected to be voted on by the Senate Wednesday night or Thursday, if time allowed. If it passes, the bill will head to the governor’s desk for a signature or veto.

SB 1085, which originally passed in the Oregon Senate unanimously July 20, and 39-14 in the House after amendments Aug. 2, clarifies some sections and makes changes to others in the voter-approved Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, which went into effect Dec. 3, 1998.

Many advocates are upset, not only because of the recent amendments, but because the bill eliminates the “affirmative defense” that patients and caregivers found to be growing illegal amounts of marijuana have successfully used in court.

Currently, a patient or caregiver can use the “affirmative defense” to argue that they’re growing more marijuana than is permitted by law out of medical necessity, making the amount legal.

An example of an “affirmative defense” would be a patient saying they’re growing more marijuana than allowed by law because that’s the only way they’ll have enough medicine. Weather conditions only allow for one annual outdoor harvest of marijuana, therefore the patient needs to produce enough cannabis in one harvest to serve as medicine throughout the year.

If the bill and its House amendments pass in the Senate once more, and Gov. Ted Kulongoski signs it into law, the “affirmative defense” would be ineffectual, and patients caught growing more than the permitted amount of cannabis could be convicted and possibly receive jail time.

“They’re trying to take our rights with Senate Bill 1085,” said Erin Hildebrandt, a medical marijuana patient afflicted with Crohn’s Disease, and a member of Parents Ending Prohibition. “Intended to solve part of the problem, (it) is an obscene attempt to further degrade our ability to remain law-abiding citizens,” Hildebrandt said.

Jacqui Lomont of the Compassion Center agreed with the Senate’s decision to pass the bill.

“I think that overall it is a good thing. It provides clearer definitions of issues that were a little muddy before. No one ever agrees completely on the total package, but it passed 30-0 (in the Senate), so that says something,” Lomont said before the House amendments.

Still, others believe patient’s rights are being unduly sacrificed. Many hold that though parts of the legislation are positive, such as the database, other provisions are hurting sick people.

“In the past law there was no limit to the number of growers. Now it’s limited,” said Jim Greig of Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group. “(The politicians) believe if patients grow more, they’ll be facilitating the black market. But that’s not the case. As it stands now, patients have to buy (marijuana) from the streets. Why can’t patients help other patients?”

Medical marijuana online ID system hinges on bill Medical marijuana patients will no longer have to rely on ID cards and their own verbal assurances when law enforcement comes calling. A comprehensive online database of patients is planned to be operational by summer’s end, if SB 1085 becomes law.

Police will be able to access the database at any time, day or night. But officers cannot arbitrarily search the system — it can only be accessed when a person tells police he or she is a registered medical marijuana patient or that a property is a registered grow site.

“It will benefit both sides,” said Pam Salsbury of the state-run Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. “It’s here to make things easier for the patient, but it also helps law enforcement.”

The Oregon Medical Marijuana Program is a division of the Department of Human Services.

The database will be a component of the Law Enforcement Data System, which is used by police departments throughout the state. Health Services is working in conjunction with Oregon State Police in the preliminary stages of testing, but the database could be used by local departments as well.

“It would be a great tool for us,” said Sgt. Mike McCarthy of the Springfield Police Department. “We could pull up a name right away and see whether or not they have a card.”

The system was slated to be up-and-running by Aug. 1, but unforeseen complications at both Health Services and the Oregon State Police pushed the date of operation back to the end of August. A committee met to iron out differences between law enforcement, Human Services and advocacy groups.

“It took a little longer on both ends,” said Salsbury. “Our main concern is protecting the confidentiality of patients, caregivers and sites.”

Presently, the database is in the final stages of in-house testing that Human Services hopes will remove glitches from the server-based system. Testing will soon be conducted through state police systems as well.

Once testing of the database is complete, law enforcement officers will be able to verify whether someone claiming his or her marijuana use is for medical reasons has current registration with the state. Just a few strikes on the keyboard and an immediate yes-or-no response will tell officers whether an individual’s marijuana use is protected by Oregon state law.

The database will be established in two phases. First, police will be able to check an individual’s patient status through the system. The second phase will allow police to check addresses of probable grow sites.

Eugene police like the idea of 24/7 access, but said this technology won’t revolutionize how marijuana users are treated in the city.

“There’s just not going to be much impact on EPD,” said Kerry Delf, of the Eugene Police Department. “It could be useful, but will probably be more of a small procedural change.”

The database has been in Health Services’ plans for more than a year, and passage of SB 1085 would allow these plans to become a reality.

The required establishment of a 24-hour medical marijuana patient identification system was only one provision in SB 1085, the over-arching purpose of which is to clear up ambiguous sections of Oregon’s medical marijuana law. Although the bill has sparked controversy in advocacy groups, the registry is not the source of most debate.

Not all patients are thrilled about having their names in a database that can be accessed by police, but the database should limit uncertainty regarding who is and isn’t a legal marijuana user or grower.

“Protection from police raids is the only redeeming quality of state registration that I can see,” Greig said.



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