After Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana in 2012, the eyes of reformers looked to the next set of marijuana-friendly states. Both California and Oregon are high on the list, having tried and failed to legalize in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Recalling the evolution of medical marijuana shows California led the way, followed two years later by Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, followed by Maine a year later.
Alaska’s marijuana legalization in 2014 is unique in that their initiatives must be placed on primary ballots, so 2014 or 2016 doesn’t really matter. Portland, Maine, will be voting on a legalization measure for the city, and the state will probably follow in 2016. Well-meaning activists in California have filed multiple initiatives for 2014, but have so little funding and time to gather more than a half-million signatures that the smart money is on 2016, when the presidential election brings out a more marijuana-friendly electorate.
Then there’s Oregon. When it comes to Oregon, it is not if legalization passes in 2014, but which legalization and how?
Paul Stanford, of the THCF medical marijuana clinic chain, was the man behind Measure 80, the Oregon legalization that got 47% of the vote in 2012. He is back with a modified version of the measure, which he has promoted as the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act (OCTA) in every election cycle of the 21st Century. This time, he has changed unlimited personal possession and cultivation to limits that match the medical law -- 24 plants and 24 ounces. He’s changed the proposed Oregon Cannabis Commission to be appointed by the governor rather than by the growers the commission would regulate.
Stanford has also filed a proposed constitutional amendment that would simply acknowledge that adult citizens have the right to possess and cultivate cannabis for personal use and the legislature can make laws regulating that right. The OCTA would require over 87,000 signatures and the amendment would require about double that. Stanford appears to have gathered a more diverse funding base this cycle, with the Foundation for Constitutional Protection, based in Austin, Texas, and other donors committing tens of thousands of dollars so far.
The latest attempt to legalize in Oregon in 2014 comes from a nationally-backed effort fronted by New Approach Oregon (NAO). Anthony Johnson is the chief petitioner for this measure and brings his experience fronting the Measure 74 campaign that tried and failed to legalize medical marijuana dispensaries in 2010, but led to the dispensary bill just passed by the legislature. This measure would legalize possession of eight ounces and cultivation of four plants, plus create a marijuana market regulated by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Johnson has financial backing from Progressive billionaire Peter Lewis and the billionaire George Soros-funded Drug Policy Alliance.
What makes the Oregon race to 2014 so fascinating is how the politics play out. Johnson plans to take the initiative to the legislature first. Both groups would prefer the legislature to present legalization to the voters directly -- a referendum, which is a power some state legislatures have. They can pass an initiative straight to voters and avoid being on the record saying yes or no to legalization. With a referendum, NAO and OCTA needn’t spend money on signature gathering; however, if the legislature does not pass on the referendum, Johnson says he’s got the backing to hire the signature gatherers to get it on the ballot.
While the billionaire national drug policy groups and the local medical marijuana clinic entrepreneur pressure the legislature from the left, the news media play the two against each other to pressure the legislature from the right. The Oregonian, the state’s largest newspaper, opposed Measure 80 and nearly every marijuana reform ever proposed. But when it comes to 2014, its somewhat conservative editorial board has twice now looked at the rising support for legalization and realized it will be passed and practically begged the legislature to come up with something reasonable. In its most recent editorial, they named names and asked lawmakers to work with Johnson’s more conservative language specifically to avoid the possibility Stanford’s more liberal language would succeed on the ballot.
Fortunately, Oregon voters seeking marijuana reform could vote for all three measures. The constitutional amendment, if it passes, would provide bullet-proof protection from legislative tinkering with whichever of the two statutory initiatives gets the most votes. Unfortunately, multiple amendments fracture the fundraising and volunteer base and may lead to confusion among voters and infighting among activists. Noting this, Stanford has said he might pull OCTA if a reasonable legalization referendum was sent to voters, but he might continue the amendment campaign or both if he felt it necessary.
Regardless, Oregon seems primed to become one of the next states to legalize marijuana, possibly after Alaska, which would vote in August. Oregon voters may be choosing whether a half-pound of pot and four plants (NAO), or a pound-and-a-half of pot and two dozen plants (OCTA) is the right way to legalize marijuana come November 2014.