Into the Weeds

Oregon can avoid the bad trips other states took on legal pot.

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.

Washington and 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 peanut-butter cup.

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:

That 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.

"[Washington] 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 Washington missed.

That 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:

"You 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."

Mark 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:

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.

Sugerman, 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:

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.

"The difference 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 much cheaper."

Potfall No. 5: A stoned driver is hard to detect.

What went wrong:

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 standard.

"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 tests.”  

WWeek 2015

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