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July 8th, 2009 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

Legalize It

Some Oregon lawmakers are ready to legalize. But with their leadership lacking, change rests with us.

     
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Last month, when CNN’s Anderson Cooper needed a place other than overhyped California to film a series about legalizing pot, his producers called the head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre knew just where to send them—Oregon.

“Oregon is second fiddle to California,” St. Pierre told WW in a phone interview from NORML’s office in Washington, D.C. “But it’s really the only other instrument in the orchestra.”

National officials such as White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske are now admitting the drug war has failed. And even Republicans like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are calling for a serious debate on legalizing pot. But Oregon leaders seem content to stick with the status quo—consigning hundreds of thousands of cannabis users in Oregon to spend their lives locked in a proverbial smoke-filled closet.

Odd, perhaps, given that it wasn’t long ago Oregon was the pioneer of cannabis reform.

In 1973, then-Gov. Tom McCall signed a bill making Oregon the first state to “decriminalize” cannabis. Possession of a small amount became an infraction rather than a crime. Twelve other states have since followed Oregon’s lead.

But like a roller skater on Venice Beach, California has now lapped Oregon on the marijuana track. The Golden State was the first to legalize medical weed in 1996—we came in second two years later.

Schwarzenegger’s call for a debate on legalization was prompted by a bill in Sacramento that would regulate and tax cannabis to backfill the state budget. This spring, the Oregon Legislature also faced a huge budget shortfall—yet lawmakers stayed silent on any debate over pot legalization.

Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski parroted Schwarzenegger’s interest in talking about legalization when WW contacted his office. But he isn’t offering any leadership.

“I don’t have an answer—yes or no,” says Kulongoski spokeswoman Anna Richter Taylor on whether her boss supports legalization. “He would be interested in public dialogue about it.”

Some eye-popping statistics show Kulongoski and other Oregon leaders may be passing on an opportunity.

The feds consistently put Oregon in the top 10 states for cannabis use. More than 300,000 Oregonians say they’ve smoked marijuana in the past month—more than 8 percent of the population. If pot were sold by the state, some say it could outstrip liquor as a revenue source, bringing in up to $200 million a year.

“It would be right up there as a key revenue source,” says Paul Warner, the state’s legislative revenue officer.

Yet Attorney General John Kroger, the state’s top law enforcement officer, told the City Club of Portland last month he’s firmly against legalization.

“It’s going to be everywhere, literally. You’re going to have people dropping by Whole Foods to buy the really expensive organic stuff,” Kroger said, drawing laughs from the crowd.

But a WW survey of 30 state, federal and local officials found wisps of support, sometimes from surprising quarters.

Jeff Barker is about the last lawmaker you’d expect to find hanging out with Woody Harrelson. An ex-Portland cop and a recovering alcoholic, Barker is a 65-year-old conservative Democrat who represents suburban Aloha in the state House.

Barker, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee in the 2009 session, would be a strong voice on any legalization bill. Barker doesn’t want stoned people behind the wheel, but otherwise he says pot is no public threat, and he’s ready to roll on legalizing.

“I’m fine with that,” he says. “I don’t mind spending money to lock up violent people, but marijuana just ain’t even close.”

Barker is not alone.

Also on board is Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Southwest Portland). A former OHSU professor and a go-to guy in Salem on health care, Greenlick also would have a hand in any effort to legalize.

Greenlick says he doesn’t see the logic in treating cannabis differently from tobacco or booze. “It doesn’t seem to me to make a hell of a lot of sense,” he says. “If we can get a serious discussion going, I think [legalization] is possible.”

Rep. Peter Buckley (D-Ashland), who in the 2009 session co-chaired the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee, says he’s open to growing an entire industry around pot if it’s done right.

“I’m not afraid of marijuana,” Buckley says. “I think we’ve spent way too much effort and money on the drug war. It’s a failure.”

But for all their talking points, no one WW interviewed was willing to spend the political capital carrying the flag for cannabis.

“I’ve got to use my time and energy on proposals that I think have a sincere ability to get through the Legislature,” Buckley says. “And I don’t think this would.”

Without a standard-bearer in Salem, Oregon’s small but earnest band of cannabis activists is left to do for themselves. They plan to put the issue on the 2010 ballot with an initiative called the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act.

If they can gather 87,000 signatures to put it on the ballot, and voters then approved the initiative, the act would set up the Oregon Cannabis Control Commission. The new agency would sell pot to buyers 21 and over, with 90 percent of the profit going to the state’s general fund and 10 percent for drug treatment.

Activists last put a legalization measure on the ballot in 1986. It got just 26 percent support. But after decades fighting to legalize pot in Oregon, they believe the public has come around.

National polls consistently track more than 40 percent support for legalization, and recent Oregon polls have shown the same. Paul Stanford, a leader on the initiative, says it’s time the Beaver State reclaims its place as leader of the legalization movement.

“Oregon is a laboratory for democracy, and most of our citizens realize that,” he says. “We often launch social changes here. I think that’s the real key.”

WHERE THEY STAND

WW asked 30 federal, state and local officials where they stand on marijuana legalization. Most didn’t even respond to the question. Here’s the breakdown:

For legalization:


State Reps. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha), Mitch Greenlick (D-Southwest Portland), Peter Buckley (D-Ashland)

Against legalization:


Attorney General John Kroger, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk, state Sens. Ginny Burdick (D-Southwest Portland) and Mark Hass (D-Raleigh Hills), state Rep. Ron Maurer (R-Grants Pass)

On the fence/noncommittal:


Gov. Ted Kulongoski, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), state Rep. Chip Shields (D-North/Northeast Portland), state Sen. Diane Rosenbaum (D-Southeast Portland)

No reply, or refused comment:


U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden (both D-Ore.); U.S. Reps. David Wu, Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader (all D-Ore.); U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.); Secretary of State Kate Brown; State Treasurer Ben Westlund; former Gov. John Kitzhaber; Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer; Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem); Oregon House Speaker Dave Hunt (D-Gladstone); state Sens. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene), Margaret Carter (D-North/Northeast Portland) and Vicki Walker (D-Eugene); state Reps. Mary Nolan (D-Southwest Portland), Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland) and Jules Bailey (D-Southeast Portland)
 
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