Marijuana Policy Project
Curved Papers

Three Ways to Legalize It in Oregon

Will it be OCTA, New Approach Oregon or Senate Bill 1556 that will legalize marijuana in Oregon in 2014?

There are three chances for Oregon to have a marijuana legalization initiative on the 2014 general election ballot:

1. Oregon Cannabis Tax Act (OCTA): Paul Stanford's Measure 80, slightly reworked, is back (it lost at the ballot in 2012) and this time it's being funded by activist and Texas headshop owner Michael Kleinman, who backed a constitutional amendment in 2012, but the measure failed to get enough signatures to make the ballot. The chief petitioner for that measure, Robert Wolfe, was successfully - and unjustly - fined $65,000 by the Secretary of State's office for election law violations relating to the signature gathering (basically, the state decided that the campaign had paid a couple of petitioners by the signature).

FYI: I cut my political teeth working on the Oregon Marijuana Initiative campaigns in the mid-'80s, which is where I met and was mentored by Jack Herer. Back in the old days, signature gathering was relatively simple and organizations were allowed to pay petitioners by the signature. Not any more; in fact, rules have changed drastically over the years, making it harder and harder for genuine citizens groups, who don't have deep pockets, to get measures on the ballot. I know from watching Wolfe work that he tried hard to keep his petitioners in line and to stay within the rules. He didn't deserve that fine.

So, back to OCTA. The measure was mocked heavily in the 2012 election by The Oregonian and by Mark A.R. Kleiman. It was without a doubt the most hemp- and activist-friendly measure (compared to Colorado and Washington, which both won). This year's version has been altered somewhat. The measure establishes a state marijuana monopoly similar to some state liquor systems. OCTA calls for the Oregon Cannabis Commission, which would set prices and purchase all of the cannabis produced for resale to retail shops. The measure has been paired with a constitutional amendment, which is a separate petition. The constitutional measure is the one which Kleinman and Wolfe promoted in 2012, and would essentially establish that marijuana possession, cultivation and distribution should be legal for adults over 21.

2. New Approach Oregon (NAO): First, a clarification: NAO is not an offshoot of New Approach Washington. Their measure is not another I-502. This is a relatively reasonable proposal that is similar to the Sensible Oregon proposal that also circulated in 2012. NAO is headed by Anthony Johnson, an activist and lawyer who helped run the Sensible Oregon campaign in 2012.

Sensible Oregon's 2012 effort didn't really get off the ground. Oregon's initiative law requires that backers of a proposed measure first gather and submit 1,000 valid signatures of registered voters on proposed language. This is then submitted to the state, and if they confirm at least 1,000 valid signatures the measure goes to the attorney general who issues a ballot title and question. The Sensible Oregon measure in 2012 failed to even get their first 1,000 signatures.

The NAO measure has deep-pocketed national backers, including the Drug Policy Alliance, the late Peter Lewis and the National Cannabis Coalition. The combination of funds and experience should have made them a pretty safe bet for the ballot. However, they have a long row to hoe. A minimum of 87,213 valid signatures of registered Oregon voters must be turned in to the state by July 3. Pay per signature, as Wolfe and many others will attest, is illegal in Oregon, so instead, contractors are paid lump sums or hourly/daily, and productivity and performance are rewarded in ways that don't appear to the state to be pay-per-signature.

It would be tough enough, though possible, to qualify if NAO were currently gathering signatures, but at the time of this writing, they are stuck in limbo. An attorney in Canby, Oregon, Michael McNichols, filed a ballot title challenge with the Oregon Supreme Court. Typically just a delaying tactic, this move came as quite a surprise, as no one in the cannabis activist community in Oregon seems to know who McNichols is and why he's doing this. Arguably, any delay can be overcome with sufficient funds.

3. SB-1556: The Oregon legislature is considering a measure that would refer an initiative to the 2014 general election ballot. The measure does not set up a regulatory system; rather, it essentially legalizes private possession, transfer and production of cannabis for adults over 21, and directs the legislature to come up with a system for regulation and distribution that follows the guidelines laid out by the U.S. Justice Department last year after the votes in Colorado and Washington in 2012.

Here is the bill's title and summary, from the state's website:

"Bill Title: Relating to marijuana; providing that this Act shall be referred to the people for their approval or rejection.

"Catchline/Summary: Declares that persons 21 years of age or older legally should be able to possess, transfer or produce marijuana.

"Directs Legislative Assembly to enact laws that define, limit or otherwise regulate possession, transfer, production and taxation of marijuana. Specifies certain components of such laws. Makes possession of marijuana in certain amounts legal. Becomes operative January 1, 2015. Refers Act to people for their approval or rejection at next regular general election."

The measure survived its first committee vote, a party-line 3-2, on Feb. 13. The bill now goes to the state Senate Rules Committee. Technically, as The Oregonian noted, the deadline for moving bills out of committee was Feb. 13. That rule doesn't apply to the Rules Committee, however, so the bill is still alive. On one hand, there's very little time to get this through both houses. On the other hand, things move very quickly at the end of the session. There's also a special trick which the legislatures can use called a “gut and stuff,” whereby they take a bill that's been through committees, then amend it to delete everything including the title, replacing it with the title and text from another bill that didn't make it. So there is a chance that this measure could make it to the 2014 general election ballot.

The rules do allow all three measures to be on the same ballot. Should that happen, voters would, of course, be allowed to vote yes on all of them because they're separate measures. What happens next is simple: This is America, so the measure that gets the most votes wins.

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Doug McVay

Doug McVay

Writer and KBOO radio host based in Portland, Ore. He's also editor of DrugWarFacts.org.