Third Time's a Charm: How Oregon Legalized Marijuana

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

Up in Oregon in 1998, Sajo along with many others organized a ballot measure allowing patients to legally use medical marijuana, which also won. One of the problems with Oregon's law was that it was written as an overly-cautious response to California's. Oregon's was much stricter, with a set list of conditions that qualify a patient and it forbade sale. Growers and caregivers could not even be legally reimbursed for expenses, so the costs of soil, fertilizer, lights and rent had to be borne out of pocket by the caregiver or grower. It was also illegal for the patient to pay the grower for their time. It's not surprising then that so many patients complained that either they had no access or were sometimes ripped off by their growers.

Sajo's group, Voter Power, started a clinic, so people could get recommendations. It traveled from city to city as well as having a home office in Portland. Others clinics popped up and pretty soon it became a crowded landscape.

Something had to be done. In 2004, Sajo and some other folks worked to get a dispensary measure on the ballot. I'd been laid off a year earlier by Common Sense for Drug Policy and gone through cancer treatment, so I was looking for something to do and in need of a healthy place where I could recuperate. That's why I ended up in Oregon yet again, working on a ballot measure and also for the Voter Power clinic.

Ethan Nadelmann, Graham Boyd and Rob Kampia had counseled against going forward in 2014 because of the midterm elections. Fortunately, they eventually saw the light.

The dispensary initiative, Measure 33, lost that year and again in 2010 as Measure 74. A few dispensaries had already been openly operating in Oregon before the election, and after that several others set up shop around the state. (The legislature passed a dispensaries bill in 2013.)

In the 2012 election cycle, three different groups vied to put legalization measures on the Oregon ballot. One was backed by Paul Stanford, who'd tried for several years to get his Oregon Cannabis Tax Act on the ballot, and in 2012 he managed to pull it off.

Sajo and Voter Power, on the other hand, were working with the Oregon Marijuana Policy Initiative headed by Bob Wolfe and funded in large part by Mike Kleinman. Wolfe ran a wine business and Kleinman owned and operated several head shops in Texas. He'd also published Herer's Emperor book and was on Voter Power's board of directors. The OMPI effort fell way short. It's possible that they had simply bitten off more than they could chew by trying to put two measures on the ballot, one of which was a constitutional change that required many more signatures than a mere legislative change. Wolfe was also hit by the Oregon Secretary of State's office with one of the largest fines in state electoral history for signature gathering violations.

The third effort, which called itself Sensible Oregon, also failed to get enough signatures to make it on the ballot.

Stanford's OCTA became Measure 80 in the 2012 general election. Prior to the vote, the conventional wisdom was Washington's I-502 would pass with relative ease though not by any sort of landslide, that Colorado's A-64 might squeak by but it would be extremely close, and that Oregon's M-80 would be defeated by a huge margin. As it turned out, I-502 and A-64 both passed with ease and M-80 came very close to winning.

Those results are what spurred reformers like Travis Maurer and Anthony Johnson to organize a new legalization measure for Oregon's 2014 ballot, called Measure 91. They worked hard to convince the DPA's Ethan Nadelmannn and Graham Boyd that 2014 was a possibility. Nadelmann, Boyd and the MPP's Rob Kampia counseled against going forward in 2014 because midterm elections don't get enough young people out to vote. Fortunately, they eventually saw the light.

Thirty years later, here we are. Four states plus the District of Columbia have all voted to legalize adult use and possession of marijuana in private. DC's law even resembles a smarter version of the old OMI proposal from the '80s, only this time around they put in plant and weight limits, and made the age limit  21.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if iI'd stayed in Oregon after the 1986 election, maybe accepting the offer a friend made to set me up with my own grow house, instead of moving back to Iowa. Perhaps we'd have gotten here that much faster or instead I could've been in jail. I'm just glad to have made it this far.


Doug McVay

Doug McVay

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