SALEM — A deputy director with the Oregon Health Authority has warned state lawmakers that existing controls over the state’s medical marijuana industry might be insufficient to keep the drug out of the illicit market.

Priscilla Lewis, deputy director for the Public Health Division, stopped short of asking lawmakers to institute a seed-to-sale tracking system for medical cannabis. That system involves labeling every plant and tracking it with a tiny computer chip similar to those used to find lost pets.

“We are not asking for that, but we see the wisdom in that,” Lewis said Tuesday. “It is very challenging without seed-to-sale. Without it, there are opportunities for dirty product to come back into the system and also for diversion.”

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission already has authority to track recreational marijuana with a seed-to-sale system. The commission inked a $1.7 million contract in September with Franwell to provide the tracking system. Franwell also is the contractor for Colorado’s marijuana tracking system.

Lawmakers opted for a looser tracking system for medical marijuana involving growers largely self-reporting the number of plants they’re cultivating.

“Obviously, seed-to-sale is kind of the gold standard for keeping the system closed, so any time you have a weaker regulatory structure, the potential is higher” for leakage into the illicit market, said state Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, who sits on the joint legislative marijuana legalization committee.

“This was basically a political compromise because the medical program is almost 20 years old now, so there was a lot of concern from growers about being subject to OLCC,” Burdick said.

Naysayers of seed-to-sale have said stringent tracking and other onerous regulation would hurt low-income patients’ access to medical cannabis by making the product more expensive.

A temporary sales program that started Oct. 1 allows medical dispensaries to sell recreational pot until Dec. 31, 2016. Starting in 2017, dispensaries that sell medical marijuana may no longer sell recreational pot.

There is some momentum to change the law to continue allowing medical and recreational marijuana to be sold out of the same location, Burdick said. If that were to happen, there may be interest in requiring that medical marijuana undergo the same scrutiny and tracking as recreational, the senator said.

“As we went down the road, I think more people got comfortable with more tracking as long as they could sell both recreationally and medically,” Burdick said.

Lawmakers on the joint legislative committee on marijuana legalization are considering a housekeeping bill on marijuana legalization next year. It’s unclear yet whether that could include provisions to allow all medical and recreational sales from one location and more stringent requirements for tracking medical marijuana. Doing one without the other is unlikely to gain political traction, Burdick said.

Rob Patridge, chairman of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, has estimated up to 75 percent of cannabis grown under the medical program leaks into the illegal market. That estimate was based on his conversations with unnamed growers, said a commission spokesman.

Possession, manufacture and delivery of medical and recreational cannabis remain illegal at the federal level. The U.S. Department of Justice in a 2013 memo indicated that states that have passed laws to legalize marijuana must implement “strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threat those state laws could pose to public safety, public health and other law enforcement interests.”

“A system adequate to that task must not only control robust controls and procedures on paper, it must also be effective in practice,” the memo said.

The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group.

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