On January 31, the Oregon Secretary of State released an audit of Oregon marijuana regulation. The audit is a hefty 37 pages, but its core findings are listed right there on the cover sheet: “Oregon’s framework for regulating marijuana should be strengthened to better mitigate diversion risk and improve laboratory testing.” Now: we would all like to see less diversion and better testing, but those findings are not exactly surprising. And no one should expect big fixes anytime soon.
Below is some straight talk about the audit’s two primary conclusions, and a few thoughts about where things are headed.
- Much of the medical market is a black market and diversion is unstoppable at this time.
The Oregon Medical Marijuana Act (OMMA) was passed over 20 years ago, in 1998. As we explained a few years back, OMMA was (and is) little more than an affirmative defense for designated marijuana possessors and distributers from state criminal prosecution, and from federal hassles to the extent possible. Those are commendable goals, but the program never made sense from a commercial perspective. Thus, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) has always found itself in the unenviable position of struggling to write rules around legislation that creates a marketplace while ignoring the market itself.
When the legislature did decide to build a primitive market, it did so in fits and starts. It took seven years to put a grow site registry together, and fifteen years for dispensary licensing. Heck, even the first grow site inspections (and there haven’t been many) didn’t occur until 2016. All of this was toothpicks and BAND-AIDS. And all the while, many people made money trading in the “medical” market. Did a lot of that weed and cash make its way across the country? You bet.
Even if Oregon were to follow the audit recommendations, however, and ramp up funding for inspections and enforcement in both the OHA and OLCC (adult use) programs, there are inherent and well documented limits to supply-side efforts when it comes to federally controlled substances. Oregon can invest heavily in keeping its cannabis under seal, but its energy would be better focused on federal lobbying to de- or reschedule marijuana under the federal Controlled Substances Act, or even on longshot solutions like promotion of interstate marijuana exchanges.
The state should also continue to push medical marijuana regulation, including enforcement, into the OLCC purview. The audit briefly suggests as much, and we’ve been talking about that forever on this blog. It’s not such a political quagmire anymore, especially as more overlap comes with each legislative session. The fundamental question is this: why have a revenue raising agency and a health authority both focus on intensive regulation of the same plant, especially when both are under-supported? It doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Finally, here’s the part that administrators, legislators and even executive branch actors aren’t saying out loud: leakage into interstate commerce really doesn’t matter at this point, especially if the state is running its studies and making token efforts to stop it. There may be some federal enforcement against black market actors (which is great), but no one is shutting these state programs down. In 2019, cannabis leakage exerts more pressure on the feds to find legislative solutions than enforcement ones.
- Testing is a tough issue, but more fixable.
Back in the day, when OHA first started licensing dispensaries, there were no real rules around testing. People would take weed to labs with inadequate equipment and inconsistent practices. They would leave with unreliable results. In 2016, when OHA began accrediting the first laboratories for the medical and adult use (OLCC) markets, not many of them signed up. In the OLCC market, this meant bottlenecks for an extended period.
Nowadays, all cannabis making its way to retail sale is tested more strictly than other agricultural crops, but medical marijuana outside that channel typically goes untested (unless the flower is processed by a medical marijuana processor, which is pretty niche). That’s a shame because medical marijuana patients are the ones who would benefit from testing the most: many of these individuals have conditions like cancer and HIV that directly compromise their immune systems. And roughly 10% of Oregon’s medical marijuana patient community includes children under 18 years of age and seniors over 70.
As far as testing issues that affect our industry clients (OLCC businesses and financiers) the audit recommends expanding testing requirements to screen for microbiological and heavy metal testing, and it promotes “shelf audits” at dispensaries. In theory, those steps could drive up costs along the supply chain, but we wouldn’t expect much variance. Altogether, the testing push is more about protecting vulnerable individuals in Oregon, including people in limited, patient-caregiver relationships. We can get behind that.