Oregon Senate going own way on medical marijuana dispensaries

250px-Flag_of_Oregon.svg                SALEM — Senate and House Democrats remain at odds over a bill placing new limits on Oregon’s medical marijuana program, and now the Senate will forge ahead alone with its preferred version.

Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat, created a new Senate-only marijuana committee Wednesday morning. That will allow the legislation — now in the new Senate Bill 964 — to initially bypass the joint House-Senate marijuana committee, which is deadlocked on the issue.

The new committee will hold its first meeting Monday night, at a time previously scheduled for the joint committee. The Senate is expected to quickly approve SB 964.

In an interview, Courtney described the maneuver as a “tiny move on the flank to try to break through on this.”

Courtney added that he wants the joint committee to keep working on its main role: implementing Measure 91, the recreational marijuana initiative that voters approved in November. The committee has not yet passed any legislation on recreational marijuana because of its impasse on the medical program changes.

“We’re not choosing to abolish” the joint committee, he said, when asked if the Senate’s action would undermine the committee’s work moving forward. “This shows us being creative in how we get to ‘yes’ on a huge, huge issue.”

Whether the procedural move will succeed in the long run is questionable, however. The medical marijuana bill would still need to be approved by the joint House-­Senate budget committee and the full House. But the maneuver builds up pressure on several key House Democrats.

House Democrats on the joint committee expressed disappointment at the Senate’s action Wednesday, but said they were willing to keep working on other bills related to Measure 91.

Rep. Ann Lininger, a Lake Oswego Democrat and the committee’s co-­chairwoman, said she has “concerns about the tactics and the (Senate-backed) policy” on medical marijuana.

“But I’m committed to try to achieve a positive rollout of recreational marijuana,” she said.

Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat, described the Senate’s action as “unfortunate.”

“I don’t think it resolves the situation,” he said. “But I do think it puts it to the side for a while and lets us get into Measure 91.”

The obstinate disagreement on the joint committee involves a small section of the medical marijuana revamp: whether elected leaders in cities and counties should be allowed to ban medical marijuana retailers, known as dispensaries, within their jurisdictions.

When dispensaries were first authorized, the Legislature gave local governments until May 1 to ban them. Twenty-six counties and 146 cities quickly enacted local bans.

A proposal backed by Senate Democrats and Republicans in both chambers would have given local elected officials the power to ban any new dispensaries, while allowing citizens to collect fewer signatures than normal to refer that decision to the local ballot.

But House Democrats on the joint committee were holding out for a different approach: Local elected officials could vote to ban dispensaries, but their decision would automatically be sent to local voters for the November 2016 ballot.

The impasse came into clear public view Monday night when the joint committee rejected both versions. On Tuesday, last-ditch private negotiations among House Democrats failed to resolve it.

Allowing local elected officials to directly enact local bans or “opt-outs” is crucial to garnering Republican votes for the medical marijuana bill — something that is a priority for both Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Portland Democrat.

But Buckley said the need for GOP support on the medical marijuana revamp “is strange to me,” given that other major policies have advanced this session with the blessing of Democratic leaders but without Republican votes.

“It’s doesn’t make sense that we’re taking people who were against medical marijuana originally, who were against dispensaries and against Measure 91, and giving them veto power on this bill,” he said of the Republicans.

Buckley said he believes much of the community fear around dispensaries is simply that they’re “still new.”

“The more the ‘war on drugs’ mentality recedes, the more people will be comfortable with having a dispensary in their community,” he added.

But Sen. Ginny Burdick, a Portland Democrat, countered that some Senate Democrats “also want local control” for cities and counties.

“I think (the Senate approach) is an elegant compromise,” she said. “The nature of bipartisanship is that you empower both sides.”

In a prepared statement, Lindsey O’Brien, a spokeswoman for Kotek, said the speaker isn’t advocating for either the House or Senate version of the bill.

Kotek “is working to find a path to pass bipartisan legislation that will both safeguard patients’ access to medical marijuana and effectively regulate the sale of recreational marijuana,” she said.

The larger goal of the bills restricting medical marijuana is to stanch a substantial flow of marijuana, ostensibly grown in Oregon for the medical program, to the black market.

Lawmakers say preventing that black market “leakage” is essential to setting up the recreational marijuana market. Some growers and patients in the program have adamantly opposed the new limits.

The agreed-to parts of the policy include limits on the total number of plants allowed per medical marijuana grow site; a mandatory tracking system for most of that marijuana; allowing state health officials to inspect certain grow sites for compliance; and restricting marijuana growing, processing and selling to people who have lived in Oregon for at least two years.

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