Into the Weeds – Willamette Week
Ann Lininger has a lot of reading to inhale.
After only a year in
the Oregon House, Lininger, a Lake Oswego Democrat, heads into a new
legislative session Jan. 12 with a doozy of an assignment: She’s
co-chairing the Legislature’s committee on marijuana.
The committee is
charged with figuring out how to implement the sale of weed that voters
made legal when they approved Measure 91 last fall.
This week, Lininger
and her Salem colleagues start sifting through more than 50 bills
dealing with legalized pot—everything from how weed is sold to driving
while high to banning pot brownies.
She wants to be cautious how legislators tinker with Measure 91.
“It’s a little bit
like cutting your own bangs,” Lininger says. “It’s way better to start
slow. Once you cut off too much, it’s a lot harder to get them back.”
Oregon’s legal pot system isn’t broken—yet.
But lawmakers need
only look across the Columbia River, or lift their eyes to the Rocky
Mountains, to find cautionary tales of legal pot laws gone wrong.
Colorado have both stumbled in debuting their recreational pot
programs—encountering problems with how much weed people can buy, how
much it costs, and how to measure the buzz from a pot-laced
They’ve created pitfalls for those states—maybe we should call them “potfalls.”
Here are five Oregon should avoid.
Potfall No. 1: Not enough weed.
What went wrong: When recreational
pot became legal in Washington last July, the state hadn’t moved enough
farmers out of the black market to stock the shelves of licit
retailers. The result was a weed shortage so severe that stores couldn’t
keep regular hours.
shortage jacked up the price of recreational pot to $30 a gram—five
times what your local dealer would charge. That’s a big problem, because
one of the major selling points behind legal weed was keeping the price
low enough to squeeze out street dealers.
made it difficult for their existing growers to participate in the new
program,” says Geoff Sugerman, a marijuana industry lobbyist. “As a
result, they had no stock.”
A better plan:
Oregon already has growers with plenty of stock—they’re supplying the
existing medical marijuana dispensaries. The state needs to make sure
that supply gets shifted to the emerging market by licensing the
existing growers to sell their product retail. That’s the step
will be the job of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, charged with
writing new rules on pot sales. But the Legislature can speed things up
by setting earlier deadlines for certifying recreational pot growers. A
bill sponsored by Rep. Peter Buckley (D-Ashland) would tackle the issue.
Potfall No. 2: The taxing of marijuana is a mess.
What went wrong: Depends on whom
you ask. Retailers in Washington complained to the Associated Press last
week that state taxes—an excise tax of 25 percent and a sales tax of
9.6 percent—have kept prices too high to compete with street sales.
are talking about a product that’s easy to find on the West Coast,”
says Amy Margolis, a Portland lawyer representing marijuana growers. “If
you make it cost-prohibitive to go to a dispensary, people go back to
the black market.”
Kleiman, a UCLA public policy professor who’s written four books on
drug laws, says that’s nonsense. He says once Washington can shake its
supply troubles, it will see the price of weed plummet—and that may mean
the state will collect far less than expected in weed taxes.
“Imagine that the cost of producing a joint is a penny,” Kleiman says. “Forty percent of nothing is nothing.”
A better plan:
Oregon’s state tax is structured differently—it charges growers $35 an
ounce on flowers and $10 an ounce on leaves. But Kleiman says taxing by
bulk will encourage people to cram as much intoxicants into a single
product: “It’s like encouraging people to sell whiskey instead of beer.”
Potfall No. 3: Too many cookies.
What went wrong: Colorado didn’t foresee how
marijuana-laced edibles, which look like regular cookies and candies,
would boom, confusing consumers and enticing children. Last March, a
visiting college student in Denver jumped to his death from a hotel
balcony after eating six times the recommended dosage of a pot cookie.
Despite the negative headlines, the state still doesn’t have standards
A better plan:
Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer (D-Portland) wants a law that would prohibit
marketing pot to kids. Some lawmakers are mulling a ban on edibles for
the foreseeable future.
the industry lobbyist, says that’s too draconian. But he acknowledges
the state needs rules about dosage and potency in place early, as well
as tough rules against “the appearance of marketing to children that you
saw with Joe Camel cigarettes.”
Potfall No. 4: Medical marijuana is code for “cheap.”
What went wrong: In Washington and Colorado, medical marijuana dispensaries routinely undercut recreational stores on price.
Weed retailers in
both states say most of their customers are tourists or white-collar
workers; most buyers still get their marijuana from medical
outlets—avoiding taxes and higher prices.
between marijuana and medical marijuana is precisely the difference
between water and holy water,” Kleiman says. “As long as you can tell a
random lie to a random doc and access untaxed cannabis, why should you
pay the taxed price?”
A better plan:
Sen. Ginny Burdick (D-Portland), co-chairwoman with Lininger of the
state marijuana committee, has discussed moving the medical and
recreational weed systems under the same regulators.
Margolis says that’s a
good idea—if it protects the medical program. “It’s supposed to provide
truly sick people a break on their medicine,” she says. “It’s not that
Potfall No. 5: A stoned driver is hard to detect.
What went wrong: Colorado and Washington set the legal THC-blood limit at 5 nanograms per milliliter.
The trouble is, no
one knows what that feels like: That standard doesn’t actually measure
intoxication levels, especially when pot lingers in the blood system
long after it’s been ingested.
Dopers complain the
limit is too low; public health nannies say it’s too high. “It’s working
if you want to charge people with more crimes,” Margolis says. “If the
issue is getting to impairment, it’s not working.”
A better plan:
Oregon’s current DUII system doesn’t have a limit on the level of THC
in your bloodstream. Instead, police can arrest you if you fail a field
sobriety test—regardless of what you’ve taken.
The OLCC could set a
hard DUII standard in two years, but law-and-order types want an answer
sooner and will push lawmakers to set an automatic, objective blood-test
“I think we need to
be super careful about keeping impaired drivers off the roads,” Lininger
says, “and also about protecting people from overly invasive sobriety