PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The U.S. Attorney for Oregon on Tuesday called the administration of the state's medical marijuana program a "train wreck," and expressed skepticism that the majority of those who obtain the drug actually need it.
U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton said people who are suffering from life-threatening illnesses or receiving end-of-life care should have access to the drug, but that the number of registered medical marijuana patients in Oregon is alarming.
California, a state that doesn't require registration, has 46,000 medical marijuana patients to Oregon's 39,000, he said.
That either means Oregon is a "much sicker state" or that prescriptions are being doled out at a faster rate, Holton said.
"If you could target medical marijuana to sick people, or old stoners, I don't care," Holton told The Associated Press. "If you want to treat it like a medicine, treat it like a medicine."
Registration for a medical marijuana card isn't necessary to get the pot in California — a doctor's note will suffice at one of the state's dispensaries. In Oregon, a card and registration with the state is necessary.
Holton declined to say which specific steps he would employ to monitor marijuana more closely, saying the issue is a matter of state law. But he pointed to the Federal Drug Administration's regulation of pharmaceuticals as an example of effective regulation.
"The FDA has people in every plant, and they're looking at everything that goes through," Holton said. "We don't know what's going into (medical marijuana plants). We don't know what pesticides are being used or whatever else is going in there."
Leland Berger, an attorney and Portland medical marijuana activist, said Holton shouldn't play doctor with other people's medical needs.
"Where was it Dwight went to medical school?" Berger said. "What makes prosecutors and police officers think it appropriate as policy matter for them to put their judgment in front of doctors?"
More than 38,000 Oregonians hold medical marijuana patient cards, about 1 percent of the population. They have to grow their own or get it from an authorized grower called a caregiver, who cannot charge beyond expenses. Patients are limited to six mature plants and a pound and a half of processed cannabis at one time.
Members of law enforcement have long bemoaned the scant checks they are permitted to conduct on grow facilities. Hamstrung by laws that turn over regulatory authority to the state health department, they argue that the police should be able to check into legal operations where they suspect criminal activity might be happening.
But medical marijuana proponents say that would be at odds with the law, which did away with police oversight by assigning caregivers who are responsible for their supply.
Voters turned down a measure last year that would have taken the distribution system a step further by allowing cardholders to buy marijuana from dispensaries. Now, a legalization effort is under way in Portland, and its backers are aiming for statewide voter approval in 2012.
Holton said the use and distribution of marijuana is uneven, arguing that the amount of the psychoactive agent in marijuana can vary from 3 percent to 11 percent.
"We haven't figured out how to set dosing, how to set the concentration," Holton said. "We haven't set indicators to ensure it's properly prescribed."
But medical marijuana is a nontoxic herbal remedy that doesn't pose the same safety risk as an opiate, Berger argued.
"That's the other card they play sometimes, it's the DEA line, this is not your father's marijuana," Berger said. "One reason why patients use marijuana as (a painkiller) is that they don't get dopey because they (measure) their usage. It's like any other pain medication, they take it as needed."
There could be changes coming to the law, though they face early resistance. Arguing that patients, growers and caregivers are abusing the medical marijuana law approved by voters in 1998, three state representatives — all former state police troopers — have been working on reforms.
A bill sponsored by the three in the state Legislature would cut the amount of medical marijuana that patients and growers can have on hand, give police greater access to confidential lists of cardholders, and make it harder for minors to use the drug.
Holton said many of the qualifying conditions of medical marijuana seem unnecessary.
"You can get it for pain and nausea. I have pain. I'm 6 (foot), 5 (inches), and I fly in planes, in coach class," Holton said. "I don't think they had me in mind when they passed this."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.