Medical Marijuana Participation Drastically Drops In Oregon

By Kelly Burch 11/08/18

Experts have a number of theories as to why the state's medical marijuana program has experienced a 40% drop in participation.

doctor holding a medical marijuana prescription bottle in Oregon

The number of people participating in the medical marijuana program in Oregon has dropped by about 40% this year, as more people opt to get their cannabis from recreational outlets rather than navigate the complex medical marijuana system.

"Marijuana is legal in Oregon," Oregon Health Authority spokesman Jonathan Modie told the Sun Herald. "You don't need a medical card. We're not surprised we've seen a drop.” 

Medical marijuana patients don’t need to pay the same taxes as recreational users, who are taxed at about 20%. However, medical patients need to pay a $200 annual registration fee to renew their license and are subject to tight restrictions. 

Diana Calvert of River City Retail marijuana dispensary says she repeatedly heard from customers who have left the medical marijuana system. 

"They say, 'I let my medical card expire. It's too expensive to renew. I'll just pay the taxes.’”

At the same time, growers are opting to switch to recreational sales rather than learning a complex new tracking system that the state requires for medical sales or exchanges.

"I think a lot of people say, 'Let's cut my overhead and go to the rec side,’" Republican State Rep. Carl Wilson said. 

The changes could reflect that some people on the medical marijuana program were just trying to access the drug legally, said Rob Bovett, legal counsel for the Association of Oregon Counties.

"Those that were getting a [medical marijuana] card as a ruse to get marijuana for recreational purposes ... no longer need to continue the ruse after we legalized recreational marijuana,” he said. 

The medical system in Oregon was legalized in 1998, and allows registered participants to grow their own cannabis or obtain it from someone who grows it for them.

However, a new tracking system has made exchanging marijuana on the medical market more complex, so that many people who previously grew cannabis for medical patients have stopped doing so. 

"Many patients are just unable to find a grower to supply them. Previously I think it was relatively easy for a patient who didn't know anyone, in relatively short order, to find a grower to provide free or low-cost cannabis,” said Cedar Grey, a grower and member of the Oregon Cannabis Commission, a state advisory body. "With the changes they've made [to the medical marijuana program], it's much more difficult to care for other patients. Therefore, the number of growers willing to do that has dropped significantly.”

Recreational use of marijuana was legalized in 2014, allowing people to grow their own plants or obtain cannabis from licensed growers and dispensaries. 

Despite the fact that it’s arguably easier than ever to obtain pot, Pete Gendron, president of the Oregon SunGrowers Guild, an association of growers, said that the breakdown of the medical market could affect low income people particularly hard. 

"They don't have the money to go to the corner dispensary," he said.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.