Third Time's a Charm: How Oregon Legalized Marijuana

Doug McVay at the NORML office in Washington, DC in 1989. (Tribune Company photo)

I watched the election results on Tues., Nov. 4 and like everyone else in drug policy reform I was excited and happy with how well the legalization measures in Oregon, Alaska and Washington, DC had done, and with Prop 47's win in California. There were other successes as well that day, plus a few losses. Still, two more states and DC voted for legalization. I've been in drug policy reform for 30 years, so I feel I have a right to be proud.

I had a lot of emotions going through my head that day, actually.

My editor at CelebStoner asked me to write a blog post about the election. He's known me for a long time and he's familiar with my career, knows I worked on legalization measures in Oregon in the '80s. I said sure, but it took me a while to get started because the emotions were crowding out the memories.

Then I saw this headline on The Oregonian's website: 

Legal marijuana in Oregon: A look at the state's pot history 

Here's the first part of the O's chronology: “1973: Oregon becomes the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, making it a ticket more akin to a traffic offense" Followed by: “1998: Oregon voters approve marijuana for medicinal use.”

That was a Proustian moment. So, let's start at the beginning.

In 1984, I was a student at the University of Iowa. I wasn't taking any classes that summer and was looking for something to do. A friend and very early Yippie mentor, Jackson Clubb (a.k.a. Steve Wilson), heard about some group in Oregon that had a legalization initiative (OMI) and they needed people to get signatures. He suggested I go there and help out.

I'd already met one of the Oregon folks, Sandee Burbank, a few months earlier in DC at my first national  NORML conference; Jackson and I had gone out there with a busload of folks from another college chapter in November 1983. I had a couple of friends who were going to be in Oregon that summer, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

I arrived suitcase in hand at the Portland Greyhound terminal one afternoon in June. A couple of folks from the campaign drove up and got me. That's when I had my first taste of real Oregon bud, which is probably why it's still my favorite to this day. Then, I was taken to the home of OMI's director, John Sajo. His house was the campaign headquarters, and would be my home for the next couple of months.

On the ride over to Sajo's, I was taught how to pronounce the name of the state so it would sound like I belonged there and I wasn't some tourist or worse yet, a Californian. It's “Orygun,” he insisted.

Jack Herer was laughing and apologizing for forgetting about me. I told him it was cool, and that I'd gotten about 60 signatures.

Shortly after I got to Sajo's, the guy who was running the petitioning crews in Portland arrived. It was none other than Jack Herer. He saw I was new and had nothing to do, so even though I wasn't yet a registered voter Jack started training me.

On the ride over in his van, he gave me the basics: ask if they're registered Oregon voters, if they want to sign the marijuana initiative petition and what county they're registered in because each sheet had to all be from the same county. If they'd already signed say thanks and don't let them sign again. It seemed like pretty straightforward stuff. Jack let me out at a grocery store and told me to work the parking lot until he came back for me.

Several hours later, it was getting dark. The grocery store was closing soon. I was starting to wonder how I was going to get back to Sajo's when that van pulled up again, the door opened, and Jack was laughing and apologizing for forgetting about me. I told him it was cool, and that I'd gotten about 60 signatures.

Jack and I spent a lot of time riding in that van in 1984. He taught me a lot. He was really proud of a piece he'd written that he was turning into a book: The CMI/OMI White Paper. It was a few pages long, typewritten, a sort of conspiracy theory.

We didn't get on the ballot that year, in spite of state Supreme Court decisions ordering the state and counties to perform two signature re-verifications. They cheated, again and again, to keep the measure from making it on to the ballot.

Alan Silber, an attorney and NORML board member from New Jersey, was also the boyfriend of Jeanne Lang, the woman who was ultimately responsible for me being in Oregon that year. Alan came to Oregon when the petitioning was over for a vacation with Jeanne. After the initiative was initially kept off the ballot, he and Mike Rose, a Portland attorney who was originally from Chicago and had been a Democrat since he was old enough to pull the lever in a voting booth, worked doggedly for days on end along with Jeanne and Sajo, putting together briefs and researching opinions. I was their typist/admin, waking up at 3 am to type in the latest draft on a Commodore 64 and learning to make coffee - which I didn't even drink yet.

Back in those days, there were no groups working for drug policy reform, no national movement for marijuana legalization. Yes, NORML still existed, yet by the time I got involved in 1983 it had dumped its 501c4 political wing and was solely a 501c3 educational organization. In 1984, NORML was moribund. Yet there were people out there, some of whom were connected to NORML, some of whom - like the Yippies - weren't. We were scattered.

Those were dark times.

I went back in Iowa for the 1984 general election. I was part of the University of Iowa Student Senate, and spent more time on that and other politics than I ever spent in classes. Then, in early spring 1985, I was contacted by Sajo from OMI. They were planning another run, and he wanted me back in Oregon working with them. I was to be his assistant and run the Portland office. Jack was back working with us as well. I said yes and in April 1985, I returned to Oregon.

Ballot Measure 5 was also known as the Oregon Marijuana Initiative. It was a simple yet broadly written law which would've legalized private cultivation and possession for personal use by adults (anyone over age 18). There were no plant number or weight limits. Private and personal use were left undefined. The language would never pass muster these days; no one in their right minds would fund a proposal like that. And yet we did it.

Doug McVay

Doug McVay

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