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Waiting to Inhale

Legal Weed Looks Likely. But Will Advocates Follow Salem's Lead?

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LET'S CUT the suspense—there's a damned decent chance marijuana will be legal in Oregon next year.

Consider: In 2012, a much-derided legalization push failed to attract support from the nation's moneyed pot activists—and still garnered almost 47 percent of the vote. Almost two years later, many of those national groups are now on board.

New Approach Oregon—the political action committee pushing an initiative that looks a lot like one that passed in Washington State in 2012­—has already scooped up almost four times the money raised by the last attempt.

On top of this, polling numbers suggest Oregonians—like the nation at large, increasingly—support legalization. And studies reveal the state is spending scads of resources enforcing pot laws that disproportionately target black people.

But if recreational marijuana seems like a safe bet, exactly how Oregon inhales—and how successfully—is still an open question. The answers will start to come into focus during the Oregon Legislature's "short session" next month.

That's when lawmakers, prodded by evidence that New Approach's proposal has the legs to pass on its own, will weigh whether to put their own stamp on Oregon's green tomorrow.

State Senator Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, plans to submit a bill that would ask voters just that.

A draft of the bill wasn't available by press time. But if it's approved, Prozanski says, it would put a referendum before voters in November asking whether the state should legalize pot for recreational use.

If that passes, the legislature would work to craft the particulars of a legalization law during the 2015 legislative session.

"There are a number of legislators, both Republican and Democrat, who saw the writing on the wall after 2012," says Prozanski, referring to the fairly narrow defeat of Measure 80, that year's pot initiative. "The pull is for us to maintain the ability to have a fair, deliberative vetting of the issues."

And activists say they might be content to abandon their own effort and support Prozanski's. That will depend, ultimately, on how lawmakers word the referendum.

"If it ends criminal penalties, if it doesn't gut the Medical Marijuana Act, if it doesn't impose per se DUII restrictions, we'll most likely throw our support behind it," says Anthony Johnson, who filed the New Approach Oregon measure.

That last bit about DUII restrictions, in particular, is a sticking point for Johnson.

New Approach Oregon's initiative would charge the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) with establishing a licensing process for people to produce, process, and sell marijuana. It would tax transactions only once, when producers sell their product to retailers or others. And it would let citizens grow and harvest small amounts of marijuana in their homes.

But the initiative also requires the OLCC to study how "drugged driving" should be defined in Oregon. New Approach takes issue with Washington's legal limit for driving under the influence of pot: five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood.

"From everything we've seen, that's an unscientific, arbitrary number," says Johnson, noting that THC can remain in the bloodstream well after use. "We want something based upon science."

If lawmakers pass Prozanski's bill, but include objectionable language, Johnson says it's possible New Approach's initiative could be up against the legislature's in November.

Having two legalization efforts potentially in play may seem like a bountiful harvest compared to where Oregon was a year ago. Fresh off Measure 80's defeat, staffers at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP)—which helped design Colorado's legalization measure—warned the Beaver State to wait until 2016 to try again ["Going Green in '16?" News, Jan 30, 2013]. In a high-turnout presidential election year, the thinking went, legalization would be a "slam dunk."

And Johnson was prepared to go that route, he says, until New Approach Oregon saw the numbers.

A poll of 602 likely voters taken in May 2013 found 57 percent favored a measure like the one New Approach has proposed. Sixty-three percent of voters approve of marijuana legalization in general.

"It became clear the path to victory is there," Johnson says.

The MPP has kept good on its vow to stay away from Oregon—a spokesman says it has no plan to help in this year's effort. But other national advocacy organizations, and wealthy donors, have hopped on board.

The New York City-based Drug Policy Alliance has kicked in $50,000. So has Phil Harvey, president of the Adam and Eve chain of adult boutiques. Progressive Insurance founder Peter Lewis has contributed nearly $100,000—$64,000 just days before he died at age 80.

Regulation, advocates say, will produce bounteous tax revenue, and slash money Oregon currently spends enforcing its marijuana laws. Possession of less than an ounce of pot hasn't been a criminal offense in Oregon for years, but enforcement of state statutes still ate up more than $50 million in 2010, according to a report released last year by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The same report found Oregon had 45 percent more arrests for marijuana possession in 2010, compared to 2001, and pot arrests accounted for more than half the drug arrests in the state. And despite being among the states with the lowest disparity in arrests for marijuana offenses, black Oregonians are still more than twice as likely to be arrested than white citizens. In Multnomah County, they're more than three times as likely to be arrested, the report found.

There are, of course, people who strongly oppose legalization. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees on Friday, January 17, are scheduled to hear the testimony of Dr. Kevin Sabet, an anti-legalization advocate concerned that legal pot will reach more children and hurt American society.

Prozanski says the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police—which doesn't sound like it would be the group's actual name, but is—has concerns about the measure. A representative for the organization didn't return repeated requests for comment.

As to which route toward legalization is better for Oregon—through the legislature or the people—activists aren't overly concerned.

"We support any effort that replaces criminal markets with legislated ones," says Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. "We don't really get involved in the specifics."

Or, as MPP spokesman Mason Tvert puts it: "It makes no difference. A good law is a good law."

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