Bust of local couple raises questions about medical marijuana policing

November 02, 2006

Eric A. Howald, Keizer Times

Three weeks ago, Keizer police officers entered the home of a couple who held medical marijuana cards and walked out with nearly eight pounds of pot they suspect was intended for sale.

The bust ended with the arrest of the pair on drug charges and put an unexpected spotlight on a little known state program that allows people to grow their own pot for medicinal use.

In the eight years since voters approved the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, nearly 12,000 cards have been issued with another 3,400 waiting for approval.

While the substance can provide relief for those suffering from a variety of illnesses, the legislation is less clear what should happen when a cardholder decides to go into business.

"It doesn't appear there are many checks and balances built into it (the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program) once cards are issued," said Capt. Jeff Kuhns of the Keizer Police Department.

Kuhns doesn't want to see such checks become an added duty of local law enforcement, but the legislation governing cardholders is vague even in areas strictly enforced under other circumstances – often directing questions to local law enforcement without a hint of guidance.

For example, when asked whether a carded grower can operate a grow site for medical marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school, the program web site states:

"The Oregon Medical Marijuana Act (OMMA) does not address this issue. For questions about laws other than the OMMA, please contact your local law enforcement agency for guidance."

The site goes on to state that "local and state law enforcement agencies enforce the OMMA around the state – that is, they may check to see if patients or caregivers posses or are growing the amount of medical Marijuana allowed by law."

However, it does not state under what authority this might be done. In the recent Keizer case, officers were led to the house because of reports of drug activity – probable cause that enabled police to obtain a search warrant.

"If we go up to their door, they're going to ask where our search warrant is, and they're right to do so," said Kuhns.

Pam Salsbury, program manager of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, agreed that officers need to obtain a warrant to search the property of medical marijuana cardholders. However, she added that the card-issuing process is supposed to catch potentially problematic cardholders.

"We run a background check on anyone who applies for a card as a grower, and what we look for is any conviction for delivery or manufacture of a controlled substance," Salsbury said.

Medical marijuana cardholders who apply simply to use the substance, are not subjected to the same background checks. They need only have a licensed physician sign a statement that they are suffering from one of the ailments listed in the Medical Marijuana Act.

The program has drawn scrutiny in the past because the bulk of the cards are issued with the blessings of just a few doctors. Three doctors have signed the statements for more than 7,100 of the current cards, more than 2,000 per doctor. A fourth doctor has signed statements for 825 patients.

Salsbury said the organization is working on installing a more up-to-date database for background checks. In the meantime, the program relies on local law enforcement organizations to report violations by cardholders.

Despite such hang-ups, Salsbury feels the program is a bigger boon than burden.

"It helps a lot of people. There are some problems that get through, but it does help," she said.

Madeline Martinez, the executive director of Oregon NORML, an organization that fights for the decriminalization of marijuana at all levels, said the groups has seen an overwhelmingly positive response to the medical marijuana program.

"We meet and talk to patients on a monthly basis who have been helped by the medical marijuana program," she said.

An meeting of patients draws a crowd of about 250 a month, she noted.

She said the state Human Services Department budget could be bolstered by further decriminalization and centralized production of the drug.

She points to an Oregon House of Representatives bill which reappropriated more than $900,000 of OMMP surplus to help backfill budget shortfalls from 2003-05.

"As far as I know, this is the first time that such a program has been used to add to the state's general fund," she said.

Expansion, however, gets ahead of the gray areas of the law that need some clarification, according to Kuhns.

"Can't health inspectors walk into restaurant kitchens to do inspections without the consent of the proprietor? Doesn't the fire marshal have the authority to inspect buildings without the consent of the owner? Individuals issued cards by the State of Oregon should know they too could be inspected in much the same fashion," said Kuhns.

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