Expanding medical-marijuana law would create drug haven, czar says

September 12, 2004

Brad Cain, Associated Press

A measure on Oregon’s Nov. 2 ballot to expand the medical use of marijuana is drawing criticism from the White House drug czar, who says it would turn Oregon into a “safe haven for drug trafficking.”

Measure 33 would make it easier for ailing people to obtain marijuana and allow them to possess more of it.
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But White House drug czar John Walters, echoing the criticism of Oregon’s district attorneys, calls Measure 33 a “fraud” against Oregon voters and a backdoor attempt to legalize marijuana.

“People are being played for suckers,” Walters said in an interview from Washington, D.C. “Their compassion for sick people is being used to do something that’s destructive for the state.”

Proponents say, however, that Oregon’s current program is too restrictive and that Oregonians already have shown that they support allowing ill people to have the drug by overwhelmingly approving the 1998 law.

The chief petitioner for the measure is John Sajo, a longtime marijuana activist who sponsored an unsuccessful 1986 ballot measure to legalize marijuana. But he said that isn’t the issue in Measure 33.

“Our opponents don’t have any good arguments against medical marijuana, so they call this a legalization measure. That is nonsense,” Sajo said.

Measure 33 would represent a significant expansion of Oregon’s medical-marijuana program, which the state’s voters approved in November 1998. Oregon is among nine states with medical-marijuana laws.

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

The measure on the Nov. 2 ballot would create state-regulated dispensaries authorized to supply up to six pounds of marijuana per year to qualified patients, although they could possess only one pound at any given time.

The current possession limit is three ounces, an amount that advocates say is too low and often leaves patients scrambling to find enough marijuana to ease their suffering.

The initiative also would expand the number of health-care professionals who can recommend marijuana for their patients. Right now only physicians and osteopaths can do so; the measure would give licensed naturopaths and nurse practitioners that authority as well.

The Oregon District Attorneys Association opposes Measure 33 mainly because of the provision allowing patients to possess six pounds of marijuana per year plus 10 mature plants.

That would give patients enough pot to smoke a joint every hour, 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, Benton County District Attorney Scott Heiser said.

“This is not about medicine; this is about recreational use of dope,” Heiser said.

Heiser also objects to the measure because it requires free marijuana for indigent patients.

“Under this measure, the Benton County Health Department would be required to give away free dope to indigent users at taxpayer expense,” he said.

The Oregon Medical Association, representing more than 7,000 physicians statewide, has paid for a page in the state Voters’ Pamphlet to urge Oregonians to vote “no” on Measure 33.

“It is a thinly disguised effort to legalize the use of marijuana without any medically scientific justification,” it said.

The association said that safer, synthetic derivatives of marijuana are available to patients and that studies have shown that smoking marijuana can damage people’s lungs.

Walters, the White House drug czar, said that the federal government wouldn’t sit by and watch Oregon create a system of dispensaries that would dole out six pounds of marijuana to patients each year. Such a system would be wide-open to abuse by drug users and sellers, he said.

“We do not intend to let any part of the United States become a safe haven for drug trafficking,” Walters said. He declined to elaborate on what steps the federal government might take in that case.

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