Oregon Patients Revolt Over Outrageous Fee Increases

Tomorrow, October 1st, through questionably legal means (more on that later), the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program will begin a new fee structure amounting to as much as a 750% increase for the poorest sick and disabled patients.  Many patients are refusing to pay the new fees, instead getting their medical marijuana recommendations and relying on using an affirmative defense in court if they get arrested.

Old Fee Structure Cost
Patient Cards* $100
Reduced Fee for OHP1, SNAP2, SSI3  $20
 New Fee Structure (Oct 1 2011)
Patient Cards* $200
Reduced Fee for OHP and SNAP $100
Reduced Fee for SSI $20
 Replacement Card Fee $100
 Grow Site Registration Fee $50
* One fee for patient, who then can designate a caregiver and a person responsible for a marijuana grow site.

1 OHP = Oregon Health Plan
2 SNAP = Food Stamps Assistance
3 SSI = Supplemental Social Security Income

According to Jody Noon, Office Administrator for the Oregon Health Authority’s Community Health and Health Planning, patient cards that now cost $100 will tomorrow cost $200.  The poorest patients (who could verify their limited means with proof of Oregon Health Plan, Food Stamps, or Supplemental Social Security Income) who now pay $20 for protection from arrest will tomorrow pay $100 if they don’t qualify under SSI.  In addition, new fees of $100 to replace a lost card and $50 to register a grow site begin tomorrow.

“I can’t afford to pay my protection money to the state anymore,” one mother of two told me today.  ”My husband and I are both patients on Food Stamps and we pay $40 each year so we can grow our small medical garden.  Now they want us to pay $250?  We’ll just have to take our chances on being arrested.”

Oregon's Medical Marijuana Law provides an affirmative medical defense for non-cardholders. Screw the state, screw the fees, we will not have you gouging the most vulnerable to balance budgets because you won't tax the powerful.

This craven rate hike by the state government has nothing to do with the medical marijuana program. Since its founding in 1998, it has always run a surplus with the $100/$20 fee structure. In 2007, the state took $920,000 of medical marijuana program surplus to balance other state health budgets. Now the state sees the 50,000 sick and disabled patients as one cash cow they can milk without much political blow-back.

The fee raise comes through a Senate bill, which raises the possibility of lawsuits from patient advocates. Revenue bills are the job of the House in an appropriations bill, not the Senate in a spending bill. The Senate openly admitted the purpose of raising the fees was to balance state budgets starving for funds, including the state’s “clean drinking water” fund. But with an evenly-divided House and an anti-tax atmosphere in this state with high unemployment and no sales tax, legislators decided that medical marijuana fees were the most politically expedient way to raise money.

Forcing sick and disabled people risk arrest for using state-sanctioned, doctor-recommended cannabis seems to be not only foreseen by the Senate but also a secondary goal of the fee increases.  The projections of income for the forthcoming years of the program are based on decreases in the patient enrollment for a program that has doubled patient participation every eighteen months!  Patients who had been paying $100 can probably afford double the fee, but the poorest patients paying $20 cannot afford quintuple the fee, and those patients are the ones most likely to be severely disabled, most reliant on medical marijuana, and most in need of protection from arrest.

This callous disregard for the sick and disabled is not surprising when some legislators make claims of “abuse” of the program based solely on the patient counts, as if there is some magic number at which there are “too many” medical marijuana patients.  If they looked for abuse instead by counting the applications that are rejected by the program, they’d find only 4.2% of applications are rejected, and the majority of those for incomplete paperwork, not any kind of indication of fraud.

However, the state’s attempt to hijack the medical marijuana program to balance state budgets may just backfire.  Within Oregon’s Medical Marijuana Act there still remains an “affirmative defense” (ORS 475.319) that patients can use in court against marijuana charges.  So long as patients still get their annual doctor’s recommendation and remain within the limits of the medical marijuana law, they can present this affirmative defense.  Unfortunately, this means the patient will have to face the arrest and the process of bailing out of jail, but activist attorneys in Oregon’s medical marijuana community are offering to instruct any public defender in the use of this affirmative defense in court.

If more patients drop out of the program than the state anticipated in its revenue projections and the state is constantly in court seeing charges dropped against sick and disabled people, perhaps they will realize the cruelty and folly of this outrageous fee increase.  Besides, if Oregon wants to balance budgets by taxing marijuana use, why gouge 50,000 sick and disabled people when 400,000 healthy Oregonian pot smokers are begging to be legal, regulated, and taxed?

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