By HERB SWETT
For the Keizertimes

Ballot Measure 74, which would establish a system of state-regulated medical marijuana dispensaries, was debated before the Salem City Club on Sept. 24 at Mission Mill Museum.

The debaters were Police Chief H. Marc Adams of Keizer, who opposed it, and John Sajo, executive director of the Voter Power Foundation in Portland and chief co-author and petitioner for the measure.

In his opening statement, Adams said the state law legalizing marijuana for medical purposes had been “bootlegged” in that people growing it for medical purposes had been selling it to businesses that are selling pot and accessories for recreational purposes, making pot unavailable for people determined by physicians to need it. The Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police, he said, does not oppose marijuana to treat illnesses but opposes dispensaries for it.

Noting that doctors recommend rather than prescribe pot, Adams said that although it was anticipated when the drug was legalized in 1998 that about 2,000 Oregonians would have medical marijuana cards, now 36,280 people in the state have them.

He argued that if Measure 74 passes, dispensaries will multiply and Oregon will have the problems Los Angeles and Denver now have.

“We’re not talking medicine,” he said. “We’re talking drugs for profit.”

Sajo, in his opening statement, said, “The problem for Oregon law is that it just doesn’t have a supply system.”

He contended that under current law, a convicted murderer could grow pot for a patient, and he said many patients have to obtain it from the black market.

“There are lots of legitimate patients that need this medicine,” he said. “How are they going to get it?”

Sajo argued that under Measure 74, growers would be “licensed, inspected and regulated tightly.”

A question from the floor referred to a concern expressed by Susan Nielsen, a columnist for The Oregonian, that the measure could result in 246 marijuana dispensaries in the state by 2014.

Calling the concern valid, Sajo noted that the state does not limit numbers of places where beer and wine are sold. He said that pot sales in Los Angeles got out of control because California had no statewide regulations for distribution, and that Oakland was able to control sales because it had such regulations.

Adams said distribution problems have been seen in other states.

The debaters then faced each other. Adams asked why there was a need for marijuana as opposed to other drugs. Sajo replied that pot is safe and effective under certain conditions and that it is the only drug that works for some people. Adams said the same argument could be used for heroin, that it is stronger than morphine.

Sajo contended that opponents of Measure 74 do not have a proposal to improve the current law but that proponents do.  He said passage of the measure would result in fewer patients and fewer pot gardens. Adams argued that passage was not likely to provide better regulations. Sajo noted that it is now a felony for patients to pay people to grow marijuana.

Remarks intended to be closing statements followed, but time was left for a few more questions from the audience. Adams, saying that the marijuana problem was broken but that Measure 74 would not fix it, argued that pot should be distributed by doctors and pharmacists.

Sajo said that although he would like to see marijuana available at pharmacies, federal law prohibits it. He said any change in the federal law was unlikely.

A member of the audience asked what obligations there were for the pot program in the current state budget. Sajo said that nothing from the general fund was allowed and that the program was funding itself from license fees. Adams observed that the measure calls for administration by health officials, because backers of Measure 74 do not want law enforcement involved.

Another person in the audience asked for estimates of numbers of people eligible for marijuana cards. Adams said that the measure would mean no change for those who have cards but that it enables many more people to get cards. Sabo said that passage would not change qualifications for the program and could not set limits on numbers of people qualifying.

It was asked what role the federal Food and Drug Administration would have if the measure passed. Sajo said the FDA was “in an untenable position,” because even though it has declared pot to have no medical value, the federal government provides it for some people.  Adams noted that he had no way of buying any drug that was not FDA-approved.

To a question of what checks there were on doctors to prevent abuse, Adams said that doctors and pharmacies monitor drugs but that Measure 74 has loopholes. Sajo said the state has a system that effectively regulates doctors.