SALEM — Oregon legislators are considering a bill to legalize and license medical marijuana retailers, calling it a step toward reining in abuses of the state's 15-year-old effort to allow people to use pot for therapy.
A legislative analysis shows there could be 225 state-licensed dispensaries in two years if the bill is approved.
The Oregonian reports that medical marijuana, approved by voters in 1998, is widely diverted to out-of-state black markets and also finds its way into the state's booming and unregulated retail trade, where patients walk into cafes, lounges and collectives with cash and walk out with cannabis.
The bill's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Peter Buckley of Ashland, says marijuana is a major crop in the region.
"The black market in our area is out of control," he said.
Under the bill, medical marijuana retailers would pay $4,000 a year to remain registered. Owners would have to pass criminal background checks, document the marijuana coming into their establishments and verify it's from state-registered growers.
The bill stops short of requiring routine inspections by the state or by law enforcement, a feature central to Colorado's sweeping regulations over medical marijuana. Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational marijuana, too, and are working on regulations.
Law enforcement officers would be allowed only to verify whether a dispensary is registered. Police would not be able to check on the establishment's supply of cannabis, its growers or number of patients.
The bill would prohibit medical marijuana retail outlets from operating within 1,000 feet of each other or a school. They would have to operate in agricultural, industrial or commercial areas.
Critics such as Tim George, the Medford police chief, said the bill doesn't attack the black market trafficking of Oregon's high-grade medical marijuana.
"You are not controlling the production," he said. "You are just controlling a small part of the distribution."
Democratic Sen. Alan Bates of Medford, a doctor, said he has written dozens of the recommendations required for patients to get medical marijuana cards. He said many of his medical marijuana patients are older, in chronic pain or dealing with cancer, and need a safe source for cannabis.
"This is a fine first step from my point of view," he said.