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4 Marijuana Legalization Initiatives Race Against the Clock in Oregon

Only two of the four seem to have any chance of success this year, but if one or both makes the ballot, the Pacific Northwest could soon be a hot spot for marijuana law reform.
 
 
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 The clock is ticking on marijuana legalization initiatives in Oregon. There are currently four different initiative campaigns underway, but at this point, four months away from when signatures must be handed in, only two look like they have any chance of success this year, and both of them are still tens of thousands of signatures from getting on the November ballot.

If one or both of them makes the ballot, the Pacific Northwest could be a real hotbed of marijuana reform activity this fall. An initiative to tax and regulate marijuana is already on the ballot next door in Washington, and nearby, sparsely populated Montana is also the site of an active initiative signature-gathering campaign for legalization with at least decent prospects of making the ballot.

The two best positioned Oregon initiatives are the  Oregon Cannabis Tax Act of 2012 (OCTA) and the  Oregon Marijuana Policy Initiative (OMPI), which are well into their signature-gathering campaigns. Essentially serving as placemarkers for the next electoral cycle are the  Control, Regulation, and Taxation of Cannabis Act (CRTC), which was just approved for a draft title, and an  initiative from Sensible Oregon, which has yet to be approved for a draft title.

The initiative currently furthest down the path toward the ballot box is the OCTA (Initiative Petition #9), sponsored by veteran activist and medical marijuana entrepreneur Paul Stanford. It would allow adult Oregonians to possess and grow their own marijuana. It would allow Oregon farmers to grow hemp. And it would license Oregon farmers to grow marijuana to be sold at state-licensed pot stores. An earlier version of OCTA failed to make the ballot last in 2010.

OCTA campaign spokespersons said it had so far collected more than 50,000 signatures. It needs some 87,000 valid voter signatures to make the ballot, so OCTA's goal is to gather about 130,000 to have a comfortable cushion to account for invalid signatures.

Also well-placed is the OMPI, a constitutional amendment (Initiative Petition #24) to repeal the state's marijuana laws. It is supported by numerous in-state groups. "Except for actions that endanger minors or public safety, neither the criminal offenses and sanctions nor the laws of civil seizure and forfeiture of this state shall apply to the private personal use, possession or production of marijuana by adults 21 years of age and older," the amendment says. "The State may enact laws and regulations consistent with this amendment to reasonably define, limit and regulate the use, possession, production, sale or taxation of marijuana under state law."

The OMPI campaign, operating as  Citizens for Sensible Law Enforcement, reported 46,200 signatures handed in as of Sunday. But because it is a constitutional amendment, OMPI must meet a higher signature threshold than other initiatives. It needs 117,000 valid signatures to make the ballot, and the campaign is aiming at turning in 185,000.

The CRTC (Initiative #44) would remove marijuana from the state controlled substances act and give the legislature the ability to enact laws to control, regulate, and tax commerce in marijuana and industrial hemp.

The Sensible Oregon initiative "would remove existing civil and criminal penalties for adults twenty one years of age, who cultivate, possess, transport, exchange or use marijuana" and require the legislature to come up with a regulatory scheme.

The Sensible Oregon initiative has gathered 746 of the initial 1,000 signatures needed to win a ballot title. Activists are gathering them on a volunteer basis.

Doug McVay, a long-time activist now (again) working for  Voter Power, the group behind Oregon's successful 1998 medical marijuana initiative, said Voter Power supports any and all of the initiatives, but is concentrating its limited resources on the OMPI and a second initiative that would create a state-regulated medical marijuana dispensary system.

"It's a tough row to hoe to get enough signatures for a constitutional amendment, but we're still working closely with the campaign, and they're well on track to get there," said McVay. "And OCTA, well, God bless them, removing all criminal penalties would be good, and it would be wonderful if they can get it done."

Time is running out on Sensible Oregon, said McVay.

"When they finally turn in their 1,000 signatures to the Secretary of State, it's going to take a minimum of 50 business days before they can start signature-gathering, and that's if there are no challenges," he explained. "They wouldn't be able to start until mid-May at the earliest, and they only have until July 6. They need to fish or cut bait."

"Unfortunately, our effort is suffering from a lack of resources. We don't have strong outreach," said  Oregon NORML'sMadeline Martinez, wearing her Sensible Oregon hat. "We feel strongly that it has the best language for a draft title, and our years dealing with the legislature and lobbying lead us to believe people will be less likely to vote for a constitutional amendment for marijuana," she said.

But the Sensible Oregon initiative is struggling even to get those first 1,000 signatures. "We would like to at least get those signatures so we can get a draft title and poll on that," Martinez said, "but the chances for this year are pretty slim unless we get that draft title and poll well and people start throwing money at us."

Similarly, Anthony Johnson, proponent for the CRTC, which is just getting its draft title, was setting his sights down the road. "We'll get and improve on our ballot title and do some polling," he said. "We're playing for 2014 and 2016. It looks like the OMPI has the best chance of qualifying and passing, but even if it did pass, there would still be a need to reform the law."

OCTA proponents did not respond to requests for comment this week, but in a recent communication to activists, Stanford said the campaign had 15 paid signature-gatherers and was in the process of hiring 20 more, as well as more than 900 volunteers. He said he had polls that showed OCTA could win with 60%, but copies of those polls were not available.

"We have the money in the bank to pay to put OCTA on the ballot this year and we will do it," he vowed.

But OMPI is also making a big and well-organized push in the final months.

"I have 220 circulators on the street and we're hiring continuously," said OMPI proponent Robert Wolfe. "We have money in the bank or pledges to make it all the way. I think I-24 is a lock for the ballot."

Wolfe said OMPI had polling numbers, but declined to share the actual poll results or crosstabs.

"We see a standard response that every quasi- or full legalization question gets, in the mid-50s, but we are heartened by crosstabs that show we have strong support among youth and the middle aged voters," he said. "Our polling also tells us that a couple of messages resonate. The statement 'We shouldn't be wasting valuable police time and resources arresting marijuana users' polls over 70%, while the statement 'Individuals shouldn't go to jail for growing plants for personal use polls at 68%."

While the OMPI still needs to gather more than 100,000 signatures, it is confident enough to be looking beyond making the ballot to the actual campaign itself. The effort is looking to tie itself to the strong progressive elements that permeate Oregon politics.

"We are hopeful that we are going to gain the support of the progressive infrastructure here, including labor and the Democratic Party," said campaign strategist Adam Smith. "We feel that our ability to motivate and turn out young voters will be a very valuable part of the progressive campaign here in Oregon. Close to 70% of Democrats here already support legalizing marijuana and a majority of voters overall. This is not a radical idea here; it's not going to be a huge political step for people to get behind it," he said.

They have a fundraising strategy for the general campaign, Smith said.

"We're reaching out to the business community. Like all the states, Oregon is short on resources, and we're spending tens of millions of dollars enforcing low-level marijuana violations," he noted. "Everyone understands that money could be better spent actually protecting people. We think people here in the state will step up. Everyone understands we have a real chance to win," he said.

"We're also hoping that the general momentum of having for the first time multiple states ending marijuana prohibition will get the attention of folks around the country who care about the issue, and they can make donations on our web site or  Facebook page. Those small donations are key, because the large donors look to see that we have a lot of individual people behind us."

Factionalism and infighting has been the bane of the marijuana movement in Oregon, as in so many other places, but this time around, there is hope that once the dust settles, people will buckle down and support an initiative even if it was the one they supported in the beginning.

"I believe that as it becomes clear we're making the ballot and the others don't have the resources, they will in the end coalesce behind us," OMPI's Wolfe predicted. "The old style of marijuana politicking has not worked for some time in Oregon; it's time to view this as an important social justice issue like gay rights, equal opportunity, and unions. We're modernizing and mainstreaming this. We will not be having smoke-ins, but we will be putting on ties."

"I'm supporting whatever makes the ballot and I think can win," Martinez said. "I'm on that bus; I don't care who's driving. I just don't want to lose again at the ballot box. Every time they see us lose, it chips away at our credibility."

But first, one or more of the initiatives has to qualify for the ballot. It is by no means a done deal, but it is looking doable. 

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