Authorities said this week that hundreds of out-of-state residents have flocked to Oregon in recent years to obtain medical marijuana cards, which the state will issue to anyone with a doctor's recommendation.
Speaking to a reporter with The Oregonian this weekend, state health officials said that hundreds of people from out-of-state have made the annual pilgrimage since 2010, when they began issuing medical cards to anyone who meets their criteria. State officials finally acknowledging that the little-known loophole has sprung a leak in the law represents a unique trend that's sure to grow -- no pun intended -- some additional business for the state's dispensaries.
The practice of narco-tourism is one that U.S. officials have long warned of when critiquing other nations' drug laws, particularly the Netherlands, but many would be surprised to hear of the practice occurring between the states. Even so, it's not nearly at the rate some lawmakers have feared in other situations: just 600 out of approximately 72,000 Oregon medical marijuana cards issued since 2010 went to out-of-state residents.
Oregon's policy is unique in the nation, though not widely known. For U.S. citizens, it effectively means that it's easier for an outsider to get pot in Oregon than a coffee shop in Amsterdam, which used to be one of the best known spots in the world for narco-tourism due to its mostly libertarian drug laws. And for prohibition advocates like the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), that actuality is akin to rhetorical "proof" that medical marijuana is a sham cover for interstate drug smuggling and a hidden legalization agenda, which they've long argued (PDF) is the case.
On the contrary, even before the Netherlands fought back against narco-tourism by banning outsiders from purchasing cannabis, it had less than half the rate of marijuana use as the U.S. The World Health Organization found in 2008 that just 19.8 percent of the Dutch population reported past marijuana use, versus 42.4 percent of Americans.
Plus, it may not be quite accurate to describe all of the 600 as "narco-tourists." Many medical marijuana patients have legitimate medical conditions that are alleviated by components of the cannabis plant, whereas the term "tourists" might imply that the trip was made just for fun. Oregon law further restricts doctors from giving marijuana to just anyone, unlike other states. That aside, traveling across state lines with an illegal substance is a federal crime investigated by the DEA, and each one of these individuals is now registered with the state as possibly doing just that.
Though selling marijuana is still technically illegal in Oregon even under state law, growers may be "reimbursed" by the patient for the costs of producing the drug, and caregivers may "deliver" up to 24 ounces at a time to card-carrying patients, who are also permitted to grow their own supply. Similarly, Oregon dispensaries are allowed to place street level signage, buy advertising and even offer delivery services. Conversely, the Netherlands only allows sales of up to five grams of marijuana at a time, and venues that sell the drug are forbidden from placing signage in public.
Proponents of medical marijuana reform in Oregon have argued that the drug should just be treated like any other medicine, suggesting that the awkward and porous nature of the state's law ultimately attracts criminals from elsewhere (PDF), who can obtain multiple cards to legally transport large quantities of the drug through the state.
Despite numerous patent requests by major drug-makers and other groups, the DEA insists that marijuana should remain a Schedule 1 substance, meaning that the government does not acknowledge its medical value.