SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber on Wednesday signed a bill legalizing medical marijuana dispensaries, setting the stage for the state to regulate and inspect businesses that have operated for years in a legal gray area.
Oregon was one of the first states to allow the legal use of marijuana with a doctor's recommendation, and the state has issued marijuana cards to 56,000 people. The law requires patients to grow the drug themselves or designate someone to grow it for them. Dozens of dispensaries have popped up around the state, but they're not explicitly authorized. In some areas, authorities have moved to shut them down. Elsewhere, police have left them alone.
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The bill gives the Oregon Health Authority new power to run background checks, conduct on-site safety inspections and perform financial audits. The agency will begin drafting regulations for approval early next year.
"It's vital now that the people who are involved in the medical marijuana program implement this bill very responsibly to ensure that patients have safe access and that they are good neighbors in their communities," said Geoff Sugerman, a lobbyist who helped write the bill.
Critics warned that the bill could lead to abuses, including marijuana sales for profit. In a letter explaining his decision, the governor said he understands the concerns and shares them "to a certain extent."
Kitzhaber, a Democrat, said marijuana dispensaries should be charged high enough fees that the state health authority "can be extraordinarily vigorous in their enforcement of the rules that are developed."
Voters in Washington and Colorado voted last year to legalize marijuana without a doctor's recommendation, but Oregon rejected a similar measure. Advocates here are collecting signatures in hopes of trying again in 2014.
The dispensaries bill was one 66 that Kitzhaber signed Wednesday, although he used his line-item veto authority to erase elements of two spending bills. He deleted a provision redirecting $4.8 million of electric bill surcharges to pay for home energy efficiency assessments, saying it's an inappropriate use of the money. He also deleted provisions that lifted caps on health insurance spending for teachers and state workers.
Kitzhaber has signed 787 bills this year, and only one remains - a measure allowing some schools to keep their Native American mascots, which were banned by the state Board of Education. Kitzhaber has threatened to veto it.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Sherrie Sprenger of Scio, would allow schools to keep Native American nicknames and mascots if they reach an agreement with the nearest tribe.
Sprenger said Kitzhaber called her Wednesday, and she pledged to visit every school district with a native mascot and work on building relationships between the schools and tribes.
"I used the phrase, unless 'I'm in the hospital or in a coffin, I'll be there,'" she said.
Kitzhaber has until next week to make a decision. He could sign the bill, veto it, or do nothing and allow it to become law automatically.
A spokesman for Kitzhaber, Tim Raphael, said the governor delayed acting on the bill in order to consider Sprenger's offer, but "he's still inclined to veto."