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SALEM, Ore - Lawmakers scrounging to balance the state Department of Human Services' current budget have found a pot of money in the Oregon marijuana program.
Nobody expected that the program -- or its reserve account -- would grow so fast when it started six years ago. Today there are more than 10,400 patients registered with the program, and the fees they paid have produced a $1.1-million surplus.
Last week the House voted, 49-10, to use $900,000 of that money to pay for other Human Services' needs. The budget measure, House Bill 5077, also moves money from other surplus accounts, including a $3.2-million surplus in an HIV drug program. The bill goes to the Senate where it is expected to pass.
Human Services was faced with a difficult choice: cut services or tap these surplus accounts, Barry Kast, the agency's assistant director for health services, said Friday.
"The department, after three years of cuts and cuts and cuts, has run out of options," he said.
In a $9.3-billion agency budget, $900,000 amounts to little more than a footnote. But it means a lot to the supporters of the marijuana program, who say their money should be used to make the program work better.
For example, the state's Office of Medical Marijuana has talked with law-enforcement agencies about establishing an around-the-clock system allowing police to verify that a person is registered in the program. Currently, verification can be done only on weekdays during business hours.
Longer-term, marijuana program supporters worry that the $900,000 transfer would lead to higher costs for many people who are struggling to get by.
To qualify for the Oregon medical-marijuana program, patients must have a doctor's verification of a "debilitating medical condition" such as cancer, glaucoma or AIDS, or a symptom such as nausea or severe pain. Participants are also required to pay an annual fee to the state.
"If any of this money came from the general fund, I'd agree that some of it should be transferred back. But the medical-marijuana program never cost the taxpayers a dime," said Dr. Rick Bayer, a physician who was chief petitioner of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act passed by voters in 1998.
Anticipating that 500 to 1,000 people would sign up in the first year, Bayer said he and others agreed on a $150 registration fee to ensure the program could cover its costs.
When it became clear that the program was far more popular -- and lucrative -- Human Services reduced the fees in 2003 and again in January.
Currently, participants pay $55 for an initial application or annual renewal. Oregon Health Plan patients pay $20.
"The idea was, over a two- or three-year period, to slowly reduce that excess fund where we'd have enough to keep the program operational and not have a huge balance," said Ron Prinslow, interim section manager for the state Office of Medical Marijuana.
If the cash surplus disappears, Prinslow said, there likely would be a fee increase, possibly sooner than expected.
Trista Okel, a 31-year-old Salem woman who suffers from chronic pain and nausea, says it's already difficult for her to scrape together her $55 renewal fee due next month.
"It's a hardship for a lot of folks," she said.
Sen. Bill Morrisette, D-Springfield, said he's trying to persuade his colleagues to leave some money in the marijuana surplus to pay for program improvements he's proposing in legislation this session.
But Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, said that when dealing with the challenge of paying for health and human services "There's always a give and take."