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Almost twenty years after Oregon's medical marijuana program began, the industry is at a crossroads. OPB's Kristian Foden-Vencil explores what's happened over the past two decades and what is likely to come next for medical cannabis in Oregon.

How Oregon Incorporates New Medical Marijuana Science

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Last year, the Oregon Legislature assembled a task force to look into creating a cannabis research institute.

The facility would have been similar to ones in California and Colorado.

The goal was simple: to increase the state’s knowledge about what marijuana can and cannot do.

But that hasn’t happened. Why? Oregon state epidemiologist Dr. Katrina Hedberg offers one reason: “Because the Legislature is one that allocates various funding for various programs and budgets and institutes.”

Another reason it hasn’t happened is that the task force found the science needed to be conducted in universities. Oregon’s universities, like their counterparts across the country, were reluctant to do research on marijuana because it’s still illegal at the federal level. Schools don’t want to risk losing federal funds.

Still, some marijuana research is being conducted. For example, the “National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine” just released a report saying patients treated with cannabis are more likely to experience significantly less pain.

“We also know that patients taking cancer chemotherapy, it might help reduce some of the symptoms like nausea, etcetera,” Hedberg said. “And of course many people have loss of appetite, and marijuana may help increase appetite.” 
The report found some negative effects too, like an increased risk of developing schizophrenia and social anxiety.

To incorporate all this new science, Hedberg holds periodic meetings of the “Retail Marijuana Scientific Advisory Committee,” a group of doctors and scientists who provide input on public health issues surrounding marijuana.

So if the state puts out a leaflet or starts a campaign to stop youth from using marijuana, it relies on the committee’s advice.

Still, the National Academy findings are small when compared to a drug that the original ballot measure said was good for cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, PTSD, pain and seizures.

Indeed, Oregon has been struggling with how to regulate marijuana since the bill passed in 1998.

“Legalized states are in a position where they have to act as almost a mini-FDA,” said Andre Ourso, who manages Oregon’s medical marijuana program.

“They’re also regulating it in recreation states as a vice. So they’re regulating it in the same manner that we’d regulate alcohol and tobacco.”

Mark Pettinger with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission says his agency regulates marijuana more like a health supplement.

“You go into a health food store, you’ve got a rash on your arm. And you talk to someone who’s in there and they say: ‘Oh, I’ve got just the thing for you,’” he said. “They go over and they pick a herb off the shelf. They say: ‘This has worked for me pretty well.’ But you look on the label of the package, and it clearly says that these claims have not been approved by the FDA.”

That confusion — about whether to treat marijuana as a supplement, a medicine or an alcohol is the reason the drug is currently overseen by two agencies. The Oregon Health Authority makes sure it’s safe. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission makes sure it doesn’t get into the hands of kids.


There are a couple of bills in Salem this session that would put regulation under one agency — probably the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. But that still up in the air.

“I think it’s better from a good government standpoint. I think it’s better for consumers,” said Rob Patridge, the former head of the OLCC.

Meanwhile, the marijuana industry’s attention is fixed on the Trump administration. Politicians from Oregon have asked the federal government to at least maintain the status quo. But United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said the nation needs to clearly say that using drugs will destroy your life.

Copyright 2017 Oregon Public Broadcasting