Oregon and two other states are huffing and puffing toward legalizing weed. But don't buy that bong just yet.

Harking back to the days when everything that mattered in politics was decided in smoke-filled rooms, the Western states seem poised for an insurrection.

This November will mark the first time in U.S. history that three states—Oregon, Washington and Colorado—have marijuana legalization measures on the ballot at the same time. 

Since 1972, only eight other full-on legalization measures have made it to state ballots. Each failed.

The only previous time Oregon tried to fully legalize pot was in 1986, amid booming Reaganomics and the generous self-congratulation of a Grammy-winning "We Are the World." Oregon voters were much less generous, however; they defeated the proposed measure with a 74 percent rejection rate.

The situation has changed quite a bit since then.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have approved the cultivation and use of medical marijuana to treat specific conditions defined by law. In Oregon, these conditions include glaucoma, cancer, HIV, severe pain, Alzheimer's-associated agitation, nausea and muscle spasms.

The proliferation of medical marijuana laws is a broadly supported development. In a Mason-Dixon poll conducted this year, 74 percent of Americans said they wanted the federal government to respect medical marijuana laws. Even a majority of Republicans (67 percent) and people 65 and older (64 percent)—approved keeping the federal government from enforcing marijuana laws in states that had voted to allow medical marijuana use.

Last year, national Gallup polling showed for the first time a parchment-thin majority of Americans favored out-and-out legalization of pot, by a margin of 50 percent to 46 percent. This is a jump from the 44 percent who favored legalization in 2009 and the 31 percent in favor back in 2000. 

Much of this change is demographic. Boomers and younger adults tend to favor legalization, while the Greatest Generation isn't quite so keen. 

These inexorable demographic shifts, combined with organized political will, might just make 2012 a sea-change year in national marijuana politics. 

One of the chief figures in this upswing is Paul Stanford, primary author of the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act—otherwise known as Measure 80—which will be up for voter approval in November.

Stanford has been a longtime pot activist and an often controversial figure in Oregon, in part for his founding of an organization called the Hemp and Cannabis Foundation (THCF), which charges a fee to hook up would-be medical marijuana patients with 420-friendly physicians in order to help them obtain medical marijuana cards. 

Stanford has also been the author of a number of failed marijuana legalization efforts since 1988, each one a slight recasting of the last. This is the first time one of Stanford's measures has made it onto the ballot via the initiative process. Stanford and his supporters gathered more than 165,000 signatures. Just 88,887 of these were determined to be valid, but it was enough to push the initiative over the 87,213 needed to qualify as a ballot measure.

The Oregon Cannabis Tax Act is by far the most expansive and least restrictive of the legalization measures currently before voters in the three states.

The other two, Washington state's New Approach Washington (I-502) and Colorado's Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act (A-64), would both put strong limits on personal possession and cultivation. (See comparison table.)

The Oregon Cannabis Tax Act, on the other hand, offers no restrictions whatsoever on the personal use, growth or possession of marijuana by anyone over the age of 21. If you have 16 acres packed tightly with premium bud and intend to keep it all for yourself (or give it away to charity), you'll be perfectly legal under this law.

According to Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), "The Oregon [initiative] has the most idealism built into it; it's the most encompassing. It's a genuine activist-born initiative."

But expansiveness is not necessarily a good thing in political contests, St. Pierre acknowledges. "Generally speaking," he says, "the more expansive the initiative, the less likely it is to pass."

The Oregon Cannabis Tax Act is certainly ambitious. It doesn’t merely eliminate criminal penalties for possession, it sets up a new broad-based framework of regulation. 

The Act would create a state-run commission called the Oregon Cannabis Commission, which would operate similarly to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Every person who wanted to do more than simply grow pot for themselves, such as grow, process or sell marijuana for commercial purposes, would need to obtain a license through this commission.

The OCC would be the sole buyer of all marijuana in the state, and it would also be the sole seller. The commission would determine the prices that marijuana growers were allowed to charge, and set prices at its own OCC-run retail stores. 

Anyone apprehended selling marijuana outside the state-run OCC licensing and distribution system would be charged with a class C felony. 

These stores would essentially be analogous to liquor stores, but they would sell marijuana instead. Nonetheless, the language of the initiative would not prohibit bars or cafes from becoming OCC stores, as long as they were off-limits to anybody under age 21.

All other commerce in marijuana would be illegal, although you'd be perfectly free to give it away to adults. 

The current medical marijuana system would remain intact, however; card-carrying patients could continue to receive free marijuana from private growers, or could buy it at cost from the OCC.

The proposed makeup of this commission has drawn some criticism.

Two of the OCC's commissioners would be appointed by the governor, while the other five would be appointed by the marijuana growers and processors. 

According to Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, "It'd be like having an OLCC where everybody was a liquor distributor.” The Oregonian called it “hard to take seriously.” 

Oregon marijuana activist John Sajo—who was responsible for 2010's failed Measure 74 that sought to legalize medical marijuana dispensaries in the state—points to the Oregon State Board of Pharmacy, which has five pharmacists and two members of the public. 

"I think marijuana farmers obviously ought to have input into how the industry is regulated," he tells WW. "As long as it isn't too incestuous, I think there's an easy legislative fix."

Because this measure is statutory—that is, it doesn't amend the Oregon Constitution—a lot of other items in the measure might also be subject to such legislative tweaks.

Umatilla County Sheriff John Trumbo, who opposes the measure, says, "The law as written has no oversight; it's got holes all over it. They don't talk about what the tax is going to be. They don't talk about what the fees are going to be."

But unlike most government agencies, the OCC wouldn't run on taxes. It would operate on pure profit.

And because it sets its own prices at both ends of the business pipeline—and makes all other trade in marijuana illegal—the OCC's income would presumably be more guaranteed than that of your average strong-armed mafia contractor. 

Most of this revenue would then wash back up into the state budget's general fund, after operating expenses were paid. 

The bill's co-sponsor, Paul Stanford, expects $140 million in annual revenues for the state, but at press time he was unable to account for how he obtained that figure. 

Stanford also estimates a $61 million annual savings in law-enforcement costs, based on a 2010 study by pro-legalization Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron.

That same study by Miron estimated only $37 million in potential tax revenues for Oregon. When asked about Stanford's revenue projections, Miron wrote, "Some legalizers use estimates that, in my judgment, are extreme.” 

Art Ayre of the Oregon Department of Administrative Services—who was charged with determining the potential financial effects of the Cannabis Tax Act—says he threw up his hands when it came to estimating potential tax revenue. 

“I pulled up information on marijuana cafes in Amsterdam,” he tells WW. “After spending probably a day on that, I realized I was making heroic assumptions.” 

Ayre subsequently marked all forms of potential revenue as "indeterminate." Ayre's estimates for law-enforcement savings—gleaned from the Department of Justice—were significantly lower than Stanford's and Miron's: They were a mere $1.4 to $2.4 million.

To underscore this general uncertainty surrounding the finances of marijuana measures, the Washington State Office of Financial Management estimated this August that Washington's legalization initiative might bring in anywhere between zero and $2 billion over five years—which is another way of saying that pretty much anything could happen.

Measure for Measure: A breakdown of the Oregon, Washington and Colorado ballots

Oregon Cannabis Tax Act (Measure 80)New Approach Washington (I-502)Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act (Colorado Amendment 64)
Legal age limit21 years 21 years 21 years
PossessionNo limit on personal possession.1 oz. usable marijuana, 16 oz. of solid “marijuana-infused products” (e.g., brownies), 72 oz. of liquid products (e.g., tea).One ounce or less in public.
Can you grow it for personal use?For personal use only, no limit. No.Up to six plants, only three of which are in bloom.
Can you grow it for sale?Only with a license from the Oregon Cannabis Commission. All sales are to the OCC, and the OCC sets all prices.With a license from the state. All sales only to licensed retailers or processors.With a license from the state. All sales only to licensed processors, who sell to retailers.
Can you smoke it in public?Only in specially designated areas inaccessible to minors.No.No.
Where would you buy it?State-run stores. State-licensed stores.State-licensed stores that sell only marijuana.
What’s the tax situation?The OCC sets its own buying and selling price. Profit goes to the state, after costs. 25% excise tax at every transaction. Taxed 15% excise tax at wholesale.
Where does the tax money go?After costs: 90% to the state general fund, 7% to drug-abuse treatment, 1% for promotion of hemp industry, 1% for hemp-biodiesel development, 1% for drug education.Largely split among treatment, education, the Washington Basic Health Plan and the state general fund. First $40 million goes to school construction; the rest goes to the state general fund.

SOURCE: Websites of Oregon, Washington and Colorado Secretaries of State.

One perceived benefit of the Oregon measure that has nothing to do with getting high is, if it passes, it will finally allow large-scale industrial hemp farming in Oregon, a state whose climate is well suited for it.

Hemp is an agricultural variant of marijuana that has a very low amount of THC, the chemical component in marijuana that gets you high. 

Hemp is the agricultural equivalent of a worker drone, robust and utilitarian but far from exciting. It's used to make rope and clothing and even ethanol fuel. 

Hemp is legal to cultivate in Oregon, but the Oregon Department of Agriculture has balked at challenging the federal prohibition of all strains of cannabis. Hemp products sold here are imported from Canada and China.

But under the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act, hemp would be unregulated.

“In short order, the hemp market will dwarf the marijuana market,” Stanford says. 

This hope for hemp's agricultural utility is precisely why one of the largest labor unions in Oregon has endorsed Stanford's marijuana legalization effort. 

According to Dan Clay, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 555, "The fact of the matter is we have the opportunity to get on the ground floor of what could be a really big deal. There are so many uses [for hemp], and it seems like it grows very well in the Northwest."

Clay professes to not be overwhelmingly interested in legalizing recreational marijuana. But he has been frustrated by recent economic setbacks and is convinced agricultural hemp might be an answer for the workers in his union. 

"We've represented employees at an ethanol plant for a number of years," he says. "The problem is getting corn to make into ethanol. They actually ceased production of ethanol and laid everybody off. It just makes sense to me, instead of relying on corn from the Midwest, why not work out applications for a local product that we could grow in our area? [Ethanol] can be made from hemp, or at least I'm told it can."

There appears to be no organized opposition to the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act, yet some think it will have a steep climb into the law books.

A June survey by Public Policy Polling showed 43 percent of Oregonians support marijuana legalization, with 46 percent opposed. Eleven percent were undecided.

Polling in Colorado by the same company showed 46 percent in support of legalization, with 38 percent opposed. Washington showed even stronger support, with 50 percent in favor and 37 percent opposed. 

Of course, the Colorado and Washington initiatives have received millions of dollars from backers, producing television advertising campaigns.

"Oregon's measure doesn't enjoy nearly the same amount of support," says Allen St. Pierre, NORML's director. For one thing, the measures in the other two states are receiving lots of support from billionaire Progressive Insurance Chairman Peter Lewis: $1.1 million in Washington and $875,000 in Colorado.

Also, the measures in Washington and Colorado, St. Pierre says, "are more narrowly tailored to polling and focus groups. They found out what people would vote for.” 

Since mid-March, Stanford's campaign has raised only $330,000. Most of this money came from Stanford's own THCF. And nearly all of that money is gone, spent on paid signature-gatherers. The campaign has about $960 cash on hand and $3,700 in debts.

By comparison, the Oregon casino initiatives, Measures 82 and 83, have already raised more than $1 million and are expected to raise and spend millions more. The campaign to end gillnet fishing (Measure 81) has raised $500,000, and the real-estate companies' initiative to lower taxes on themselves (Measure 79) has raised a little over $800,000.

None of Measure 80's endorsers—the NAACP, United Food and Commercial Workers or Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association—has contributed any money to help bolster the measure. But singer Willie Nelson, a notorious pothead, did throw $5,000 into the kitty.

The same lack of money holds for the opposition.

According to the Oregon Secretary of State's office, no funded organization has stepped up to campaign against the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act. The Oregon District Attorneys Association, the Oregon State Sheriffs Association and the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police are all in opposition but don't intend to raise money.

If the Oregon legalization campaign does manage to succeed, it would likely cause a faceoff with a federal government that still considers marijuana highly illegal.

"Are the feds going to go nuts in court?" asks Washington marijuana activist Philip Dawdy. "Yeah. Will they win? Nobody knows."

Steve DeAngelo, the owner of a chain of medical marijuana dispensaries in California, says the federal response in his state—which has a medical marijuana law with a retail component—has been for the feds to shut down the individual operations of each medical marijuana vendor.

"There have been dozens of actions," DeAngelo says, "threatening landlords with the seizure of their property."

St. Pierre, NORML's director, says the Oregon landscape would be different. Because the marijuana would be administered through the state itself, passage of the bill would all but force a federal showdown. He welcomes it.

"The federal government is laying waste to the medical marijuana industry in California," he says. "Looking forward, the state has to be involved. Let's go to the Supreme Court. It's not a great court to get before, but the court was set up to resolve these types of conflicts.

“And if all of these measures lose, it doesn’t matter. There will be initiatives in 2014, in 2016. It’s not going away.” 

Positions of Elected Officials and Candidates

Some politicians want to avoid the issue of marijuana legalization. According to Jim Moore, assistant professor of politics and government at Pacific University and director of the school's Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation, candidates aren't yet sure that it's a mainstream issue. "All you do by taking a position is maybe tick off a section of voters," he says. "You bring their attention to it." We contacted (or tried to contact) a number of elected officials and candidates for office to get their opinions.

Support Measure 80

  1. City Commissioner Randy Leonard: “I see it as an interesting contradiction that we allow drinking and prohibit marijuana. I think arguably marijuana is the less harmful of the two.” 
  2. Congressional candidate Joyce Segers (D): “I support the legalization of marijuana and of hemp production, as long as minors are blocked in some way. I do support Measure 80.”
  3. Mayoral candidate Charlie Hales: “I think that the criminalization of marijuana has not worked, is costly and does not reduce drug abuse.”

Support marijuana legalization, but no comment on Measure 80

  1. U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon, 3rd District), City Commissioner-elect Steve Novick.

Leaning in support

  1. Mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith: “This is a decision for the voters of Oregon, not the mayor of Portland. As mayor, I’ll be focused on making the city work better for more people. As a voter, I think marijuana prohibition isn’t working very well—diverting money away from incarcerating serious offenders and vital services like treatment and prevention. I’m inclined to favor the measure, but I want to hear more from the proponents and opponents before I cast my vote.”

Oppose Measure 80/legalization

  1. U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Oregon, 5th District) opposes the measure; Gov. John Kitzhaber opposes marijuana legalization. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon, 2nd District) voted against allowing medical marijuana in Washington, D.C., in 1999.

Declined to give an opinion

  1. City Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz; City Council candidate Mary Nolan; U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon, 4th District); Congressional candidates Ronald Green (R) and Art Robinson (R).

Didn't return our phone calls

  1. U.S. Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon, 1st District) and Greg Walden (R-Oregon, 2nd District); Congressional candidates Delinda Morgan (R) and Fred Thompson (R); U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon). (Wyden has issued statements against marijuana legalization in the past, but alongside Merkley co-sponsored a bill that would have legalized industrial hemp farming.) 

Johnny Can Weed All By Himself

An aspect of Measure 80 some might find more than a little surprising is that the seeds for marijuana could legally be sold at your local 7 Dees or the Portland Nursery. This is because all seeds are classified as hemp, which is unregulated under the measure.

Even 12- or 16-year-olds, who are otherwise restricted under the Cannabis Tax Act from possessing marijuana, could legally buy seeds.

The measure's sponsor, Paul Stanford, isn't perturbed by this. "It's the same way a kid can make wine or beer these days," he says. "Except once they have the wine or beer, it's illegal. Like when I was a kid in Dallas, Texas, I bought a wine-making kit at a local store. I never got around to making the wine, though."

WWeek 2015

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