Committee: Use organic standard for pot inspection

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The citizen committee that advises Oregon's medical marijuana program has recommended adopting the plant-inspection standards used for organic certification, one element of a complicated series of requirements necessitated by the state's new law allowing dispensaries.

The state is entering new territory in permitting dispensaries, a model shot down by voters in a 2010 ballot measure but made legal by the Legislature this month.

The Advisory Committee on Medical Marijuana, an 11-member citizen board, met Monday in Portland with the program's administrators in an effort to put the Legislature's broad, vaguely-worded bill into practice. The committee's recommendations to the Oregon Health Authority will help shape the state's dispensary program, which goes into effect in March.

The new system will operate by allowing growers to be reimbursed for pot by dispensaries, which will then charge patients. Supporters of the bill say the market will set the appropriate prices for growers' labor and other costs.

Opponents say the reimbursement system will allow growers to set their own prices and lead to widespread abuse of the medical marijuana system. Much about the Oregon dispensary system remains uncertain, because the Legislature gave the state marijuana program broad latitude for writing the dispensaries' rules.

Among the thorniest issues is how to test marijuana plants at dispensaries for pesticides, mold and fungi, which can be fatal to medical marijuana patients with immune system deficiencies. The Oregon Medical Marijuana Program has already indicated it will turn to third-party labs to conduct the testing, but which labs they pick and how they accredit those labs remains a mystery.

Members of the committee said they're worried a grower with a bad crop could go from dispensary to dispensary until he found one willing to accept it, putting patients at risk.

Adopting the standards Oregon uses to certify crops as organic would mean accreditation by a USDA-accredited certifying agent. Organic certification also means that the land must have been free of prohibited substances for three years before the first crop harvest. Those substances include arsenic, strychnine and ash from burned manure.

Committee chair Todd Dalotto said he consulted domestic testers and those in both Canada and the Netherlands, who said there is a "reasonably standardized" system for testing pot.

"They put a sample on (in a petri dish) and see how many colonies grow," Dalotto said.

Such a system would create another level of administration for the health authority, including laboratory audits, for which it has no personnel, equipment or experience. The state allotted the health authority $800,000 for new costs.

The committee also recommended "batch testing" of pot, or testing samples, instead of tests of every plant, the costs of which they said would be prohibitive.

The economics of the new dispensary system remain unclear, especially the question of who will profit. The system is primed to enable growers to act as wholesalers and dispensaries as retailers. Advocates for the dispensary law say it gives growers a greater financial incentive to keep the drug in the medical system and off the more lucrative black market.