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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.

Medical Marijuana Sales In Oregon Plummeting As Recreational Sales Increase

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB
Like many Oregonians, Nicole Shaffer has let her Oregon Medical Marijuana Card lapse because the $200 annual fee isn't worth the lower cost of medical marijuana. She just buys recreational marijuana instead.

Nicole Shaffer is a 25-year-old store receptionist. She’s been using medicinal pot for four years now.

“I use it mostly for kind of emotional stuff,” she said. “I probably … smoke about once a day at this point.”

But last month, Shaffer let her official Oregon medical marijuana card lapse. She said the annual $200 cost isn’t worth the savings she makes on medical versus recreational marijuana.

“To buy, like, a $12 gram here and there is going to be way more cost effective than to go out and spend $200 on a medical card,” she said.

Shaffer is not alone. A lot of Oregonians are making the same decision.

State officials say that since recreational marijuana became legal, the number of people with medical cards dropped from 77,000 to 67,000 — that’s equivalent to the population of Cottage Grove.

And it’s not just customers who are moving to the recreational market. Of the 300 plus dispensaries in the state, more than 80 percent have applied to sell recreational cannabis.

The Little Amsterdam Dispensary in Portland, for example, just shut down its medicinal shop. Owner Renee Barnes is still a partner in two other stores.

She said that medical and recreation sales were about 50-50.

“Now we see about 70 percent recreational and 30 percent medical customers,” she said.

Medical marijuana is supposed to be a legal, easy way to help people get help for pain reduction or other chronic problems. Patients with medical marijuana cards can buy more at one time than recreational customers — and they pay lower prices.

But that isn’t proving enough to retain customers.

Barnes says the state now seems to be favoring recreational marijuana over medicinal marijuana.

“You know it’s kind of maybe become the ugly stepchild,” she said.

Dr. Christian Le runs Green Earth Medicine in Portland, a clinic that specializes in helping people use medical marijuana.

He’s also hearing that medical sales are withering. And he’s frustrated because he says the state appears to be pushing aside the promise of medicinal marijuana in favor of the tax revenues it gets for recreational marijuana.

State and local authorities can slap up to 20 percent on recreational sales, while they don’t add a thing to medicinal sales.

Le doesn’t believe the state is trying to kill medicinal sales. Instead, it’s just letting it wither.

“The people who made cannabis legal, as it is today, are actually being thrown to the curb,” he said. “Whether it’s people in the industry making profits off it or whether it’s the state making taxation out of it, that seems to be 99 percent of the focus.”

Medicinal growers are having problems, too. That’s because they don’t grow on the same scale as recreational farmers but are now subject to many of the same regulations, such as license fees and the need for expensive security cameras and seed-to-sale tracking systems.

Mark Pettinger with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission won’t comment on whether taxes are driving the move from medical to recreational sales, but he says the new regulations are necessary.

“(They’re) really to ensure that certain safeguards are in place to protect public safety,” he said. “That means preventing access by children. It means ensuring that marijuana isn’t diverted from legal intent into the illegal market. It means trying to keep marijuana … out of the hands of the cartels and organized crime.”

Pettinger said the new regulations are needed to help dissuade the federal government from cracking down on marijuana-friendly states such as Oregon.

“Up until now the medical marijuana system has been less tightly regulated, and it’s been a source for diverting product to the illegal market,” he said in a statement.

So, is the state seeing the death of the medical marijuana-only dispensary?

No, says Rob Patridge, the recently departed chief of the OLCC.

“Basically you’re going to have a series of cities and counties across the state who’ve opted out from recreational sale,” he said. “So you’re going to have some of those medical-only sales dispensaries.”

Those dispensaries are going to be in Eastern Oregon, where medical cards are often the only legal way people can get the drug.

Maybe it’s not what Oregon voters intended when they approved medical marijuana in 1998 — but for patients, it’s better than nothing.

Copyright 2017 Oregon Public Broadcasting