Just Say No Redux

Taxpayers will pay for an anti-drug campaign—timed to hit just before the November vote on legalizing pot.

POT TALK: Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis will speak in opposition to Measure 91 during an October tour of Oregon cities.

A recent poll shows eight of 10 Oregonians believe it's a matter of when, not if, voters erase laws against recreational use of marijuana. And a growing consensus says it will happen Nov. 4, when Measure 91, the latest pot legalization initiative, appears on the ballot.

The Measure 91 campaign has deep pockets padded by mainstream donors. It enjoys a growing number of middle-of-the-road endorsements, including from a retired Oregon Supreme Court judge and the City Club of Portland. And Measure 91 looks similar to measures that passed in Colorado and Washington in 2012.

But an opposition campaign is taking shape—and it will run parallel to a federally funded anti-drug tour scheduled to make the rounds in Oregon a week before voters receive their mail-in ballots.

The tour raises the stakes as Oregon district attorneys, sheriffs and other opponents start to organize a campaign in opposition to Measure 91.

Recent polls show 51 percent of likely voters say they will vote for Measure 91, compared to 42 percent against—a thin margin at this stage for any ballot measure proposing big changes in Oregon law.

"When you have these measures, the safest vote is always 'no,'" says Jim Moore, director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University. "'No' keeps the status quo."

The pro-Measure 91 campaign, New Approach Oregon, has so far spent $1.1 million and announced this week that it will spend an additional $2.3 million on television ads.

"Supporters could be complaisant," says New Approach Oregon director Anthony Johnson. "We're doing everything we can to energize voters. While we're in great shape to win, it's not a done deal."

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis says the Oregon District Attorneys Association plans to invest in the No on 91 campaign after an overwhelming majority of its members voted to oppose the measure. Marquis said Measure 91 allows people to grow too much marijuana (four plants per house, a half pound per person) and will make marijuana more accessible to kids.

Marquis will join the taxpayer-funded tour that features Kevin Sabet, whom Salon calls the “quarterback of the new anti-drug movement.” 

Sabet worked as an adviser in the Office of National Drug Control Policy under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Sabet and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) launched the anti-pot group Smarter Approaches to Marijuana last year after Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana. He launched a second advocacy group this year called Grass Is Not Greener to oppose state legalization campaigns.

"If this were just about adults wanting to smoke a joint in their basement, OK," Sabet tells WW. "But we're creating an industry that's similar to tobacco."

Measure 91 makes it illegal to sell marijuana to minors. Sabet says the cigarette industry still targeted kids, and he believes a burgeoning marijuana industry is already doing the same.

"Young people are more likely to use if it's legal for adults," Sabet says. "We don't need another legal drug recklessly promoted and advertised for kids."

The education tour is funded through a federal Drug-Free Communities Support Program grant, administered through the same office for which Sabet worked. It's not clear yet how much taxpayer money will be spent on the tour. Planners say each county will foot the bill separately. The Jefferson County portion of the tour, for example, will run about $15,000 for a two-day conference, half of which will be dedicated specifically to marijuana.

While the tour is conveniently timed to begin two weeks before voters receive their ballots, organizers insist it's not meant to be seen as opposition to Measure 91.

"We are not political," says Cindy Brockett, a prevention coordinator at BestCare Treatment Services in Madras, the nonprofit that's organizing the tour. "We deal with educating the public and helping them understand the harmful effects of drugs."

Johnson, the chief petitioner for Yes on 91, says the tour appears to skirt campaign finance law, if not outright break it.

"It's a misuse of federal taxpayer dollars to campaign against a state ballot measure days before people start voting on it,” he tells WW. “Calling this an ‘education campaign’ is preposterous, and if it is legal, it shouldn’t be.”  

WWeek 2015

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