Third Time's a Charm: How Oregon Legalized Marijuana

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

The state of Oregon issued this ballot title for the measure: “Legalizes Private Possession and Growing of Marijuana for Personal Use." The question for the voters was: “Shall law forbid permits, licenses and criminal penalties for possessing or growing marijuana for personal use?” 

The measure qualified for the ballot in record time and was certified by the state before the end of the year. And, as you may have already guessed, we lost. The measure got about 26% in favor.

We learned a lot from the endeavor and it had a huge national impact. Not only NORML, the entire drug policy reform movement was jump-started because of that vote in 1986. Sajo appeared on the front page of USA Today. The conference which we held with NORML in the summer of 1986 was huge. It got national publicity, even Ken Kesey appeared to debut his one-man show which featured readings from The Demon Box. Working with the campaign in 1984, then again in 1985-1986, gave Jack Herer - rhymes with "terror" - time to finish writing his book, which evolved into The Emperor Wears No Clothes.

I had to return to Iowa after the election to sort out some family business. I wanted to stay involved in marijuana politics however, so when I heard about a job opening at national NORML in Washington, DC, I jumped at the opportunity. On the strength of my experience in Oregon, I became their projects/activist coordinator. I made sure to get boxes of Jack's book for the office, and anyone who requested information about becoming active received a copy while I was there. That's how I came to bring a copy of a very early edition to New York to give to then High Times editor-in-chief Steve Hager when I went to my first High Times Christmas party. But first Steve harangued me about how useless and ineffective NORML was. It probably shocked him when I agreed. Then told him about OMI and gave him his first copy of Jack's book.

I started at NORML in 1987. On Nov. 3, NPR reporter Nina Totenberg broke a story about the Reagan administration's Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg. It seemed that while teaching at Harvard, Ginsburg had been a pot smoker.

The next morning, I stood outside the building in which NORML had its offices waiting for another staffer to arrive. Jon Gettman, the executive director, was laid up at home with a kidney stone. Jeff Edwards, the business manager, would roll in around 10 am. The only other employee was John Blakeslee, the office manager. We also had two part-time volunteers and two part-time employees, all of them students from American University. One of those part-timers, Rick Pfrommer, later became a housemate of mine and a very good friend.

Blakeslee arrived at the NORML office and let me in. By the time that day was over I had handled 40 media calls including one stand-up interview with the local NBC affiliate. Edwards did about as many that day, and that evening appeared on CNN.

Things got interesting after that. Rick and I ended up as housemates in 1988-1989. Around that time, Loey Glover moved to DC to take over as NORML's office manager/receptionist. 

The NutHouse in DC only lasted a few years but oh, the parties, the weekly pot-lucks, and the incredible work we got done.

In 1988, it was NORML's policy to have nothing to do with the annual 4th of July Smoke-In in DC. The next year, in 1989, we were working with the Yippies and helped to organize the Smoke-In. One of the lead organizers was a local concert promoter and nightclub operator named Steve DeAngelo. Stevie D, Rick, Loey, and I, along with Mike Fluggenock and Corrie Van Steenberg, got together in the fall of 1989 and leased a house at 520 Butternut St. NW. That place became known, appropriately, as The NutHouse. It only lasted a few years, but oh, the parties, the weekly pot-lucks and the incredible work we got done there.

One of my jobs at NORML was to encourage activists. There was one in particular, a woman from Illinois, who used to call for advice and encouragement. She'd call once every week or two, and we'd talk for hours. Her name was Debby Goldsberry.

Debby had started working with Ben Masel, who was also working with Jack Herer, putting together rally events in the Midwest. These rallies were based around a few annual smoke-in style events, including the Ann Arbor Hash Bash and Hash Wednesday in Champagne, Illinois. The idea was to get a crew of dedicated activists who would travel from city to city with a couple of notable speakers doing rallies and other events. That ultimately turned into Hemp Tour.

Having dumped Gettman in the spring of 1989 partly due to some concerns over IRS issues, NORML's board chose Don Fiedler, a member of its legal committee to be the new director. At this point, they decided to keep activists at arm's length, though they were more than happy to take the money raised by concert events and t-shirt sales. Soon, the relationship with DeAngelo, which we'd been cultivating, turned sour.

My job had changed. No longer working with activists, I was to focus on the legal committee. I still did some of the outreach however, so when contacts put together a forum on legalization at a college in Ohio, I represented NORML. Debby was also there. We started talking about what a Hemp Tour could look like, what we would need to be able to organize one. We took notes, stayed up the whole night talking, smoking and writing.

By the next day, we had a pretty good outline. I typed it up and showed it to Fiedler. He glanced at the outline, looked back at me, shrugged and asked what he was supposed to do with it. Not long after this I handed in my letter of resignation.

Meanwhile, back at the NutHouse, we formed the Cannabis Action Network (CAN). I thought we should focus on civil rights and social justice, and thank goodness I was overruled. Instead, we used Hemp Tour to raise awareness about medical marijuana.

Elvy Musikka and I first met when I was working at NORML. A reporter called the office for comments because she was about to become a legal federal medical marijuana patient – the third in the whole country, after Bob Randall and Irv Rosenfeld. Elvy believed in grassroots activism and she was fearless, so she joined the Hemp Tour and started traveling around the country with us.

CAN moved to Lexington, Kentucky and eventually to Berkeley, California. While in Berkeley, Debby and the CAN crew continued working on the medical marijuana issue. Dennis Peron had put together and passed Proposition P in San Francisco in support of medical marijuana access. Dennis had come up to Oregon a few times and worked with us during the OMI campaign. So, when Prop 215 to legalize medical cannabis throughout the state kicked off in 1996, Debby joined in the effort along with Sajo, who drove down from Oregon, to help the signature gathering.

After Prop 215 passed, things started moving a lot faster.

Doug McVay

Doug McVay

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