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Mixed Messages About Medical Marijuana in Oregon
Both federal law and Oregon state law on medical marijuana should be clarified.

Medical marijuana is legal in Oregon — or at least it’s supposed to be. After all, the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act permits marijuana to be grown, possessed and used for medical purposes.

Why, then, did prosecutors in Washington County bring charges against the owner of a marijuana dispensary who was, essentially, just doing her job? In August 2011, Kathleen O’Shea Cambron pleaded guilty to two counts of delivery of marijuana and received a sentence of three years on probation.

This article will examine the issue of medical marijuana in Oregon. The issues to be discussed will include not only the state law regarding dispensaries, but also the question of federal enforcement of laws prohibiting the cultivation and distribution of marijuana.

Oregon Medical Marijuana Act

The Oregon Medical Marijuana Act has been in place for over a decade. Voters originally passed it by ballot measure in 1998. It allows for the cultivation, possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes. People who participate in the program must have a prescription from a physician and obtain a card from the state.

Over 40,000 patients are in the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. In practice, however, medical marijuana is difficult to obtain for many people, even for those who have valid cards.

Although someone can grow his or her own medical marijuana, there is no reliable supply system. If you don’t grow it yourself, you have to hope that another cardholder will donate some to a licensed caregiver.

In November 2010, Oregon voters defeated Measure 74, which would have allowed the state to set up dispensaries for medical marijuana. Debate about the proposal got bogged down in over-heated rhetoric about the supposed prospect of criminal gang involvement in dispensaries.

Even with this defeat, however, it’s important to remember that medical marijuana remains legal in Oregon. Including Oregon, the number of states where it is legal stands at 16, plus the District of Columbia.

Medical Marijuana and Federal Law

Federal law still officially prohibits cultivation and distribution of marijuana. But many informed commentators and legislators believe that the federal prohibition of marijuana has been a colossal mistake.

Prohibition of marijuana has diverted law enforcement resources away from serious public safety challenges — all in the name of cracking down on a substance that substantial segments of the American public do not consider harmful. “One toke over the line,” went the song lyric from the early 70s. By almost any measure, federal policy in pursuit of that toke has been over the top.

That over-the-top, rigid policy was evident during the George W. Bush administration, when medical marijuana dispensaries were at risk of raids and federal drug charges. The Obama administration initially seemed ready to change course and restrict federal marijuana enforcement to large-scale traffickers. More recently, however, federal authorities have signaled the possibility of a renewed federal crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries and “cannabis clubs.”

There is also a bill in Congress sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank and Rep. Ron Paul that would end the federal marijuana prohibition entirely. Such are the mixed messages that marijuana continues to elicit among policymakers and the public.

The Washington County Dispensary Case

Kathleen O’Shea Cambron is a 44-year-old woman who operated a business in Washington County that she described as a “cannabis exchange.” It was called the Wake ‘n Bake Cannabis Lounge.

The business charged a membership fee of $20 to medical marijuana cardholders. It also sold small quantities of legally grown marijuana, in sizes of up to one ounce.

Cambron’s motives in starting the business grew out of her own experience as a medical marijuana cardholder who found it difficult to obtain the drug. Her doctor had prescribed medical marijuana to provide relief from the intense, often debilitating pain she suffered after an ATV accident.

Cambron consulted with attorneys before launching the business about how to stay within the law. She thought she was doing the right thing in trying to help other patients. Indeed, that is just what she told the judge at her sentencing. “I believed I was doing the right thing,” she said.

The judge sentenced Cambron to three years of probation. She also is no longer allowed to participate in the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program

Law Needs to be Clarified

Both federal and state laws on medical marijuana need to be clarified. At the federal level, the questions should include whether the old prohibition policy should even continue. Federal efforts could, instead, focus on controlling marijuana movement over U.S. borders or between states with differing marijuana laws.

In Oregon, the ambivalence in state policy over medical marijuana should give way to recognition of the practical realities of creating a legitimate, reliable supply source for medical cardholders. As things stand, cardholders who don’t grow their own supply often have difficulty obtaining medical marijuana.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in economics to see why this is the case. Although cardholders can conceivably get medical marijuana from an authorized grower, there aren’t enough growers to keep up with the demand.  And there aren’t enough growers because they can only be reimbursed for the cost of growing the product — not actually paid for it.

In the meantime, if you have questions or concerns about the legality of medical marijuana, contact a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer.

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