Bill would legalize medical pot dispensaries in Oregon

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SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Seeking to make it easier for medical pot users to get their medicine and harder for the black market to get its hands on Oregon weed, the state Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would legalize and license marijuana shops.

Under current Oregon law, nearly 55,000 cardholders must grow the drug themselves or designate someone to grow it for them. Medical pot users say dispensaries are needed, to give them a reliable place to get their medicine.

Medical marijuana dispensaries that exist now operate without oversight and run the risk of being shut down by law enforcement. Some counties have taken a hands-off approach and allowed the establishments to remain open. But dispensaries in other counties have been raided by police and forced to close.

Another major concern of Oregon's medical pot program is that the weed supposedly intended for medical marijuana patients is getting sold on the black market.

Architects of the bill passed Wednesday say it will give cardholders certainty that they can acquire their medicine, and that it is safe. They also hope the bill will keep excess pot from being siphoned off to the black market.

"This is a great way to impose a standard that will keep that from occurring," said Sen. Floyd Prozanksi, D-Eugene.

The bill, which passed 18-12, would establish a licensing system under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program to regulate the medicinal pot retail industry. This would bring the estimated 200 lounges, collectives and cafes already in operation under state law.

Opponents say the bill doesn't go far enough to stop what they see as abuses to the medical marijuana program. And some lawmakers have argued that authorizing dispensaries is a slippery slope to legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

The bill would authorize growers to legally sell their excess pot to medical marijuana establishments that connect patients with their medicine. Growers could only charge for the cost of supplies and utilities.

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 also requires testing all marijuana batches for pesticides, molds and mildews.

A legislative report estimates there will be 225 state-licensed dispensaries in the next two years if the bill is approved.

The bill would also prohibit medical marijuana retail outlets from operating within 1,000 feet of each other or a school. And they would have to operate in agricultural, industrial or commercial areas.