One Way Or Another, Oregonians Could Vote On Pot Legalization Next Year
First, it was Washington and Colorado. Now, Oregon is in the running to legalize marijuana.
Supporters are gathering signatures for a pair of initiatives to allow pot for recreational purposes. But here’s something that hasn’t happened in any other state: Oregon lawmakers are actually thinking seriously about taking on the issue.
State representative Phil Barnhart thinks Oregon should get in the business of selling marijuana. And he thinks the state would be a pretty good pot dealer, too.
"I am confident that we can sell a better product for less money than is currently the price in the illegal market," he says.
Barnhart envisions a day when marijuana is sold in much the same way hard liquor is -- through a system of stores regulated by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
Like the new law being implemented in Washington, he says the drug would be taxed and available to any adult who wanted it. But he doesn't use the word "legalization" to describe his idea.
"I don't think of this as somehow a loosening," Barnhart says. "I think of it as a way of actually acknowledging reality that people are going to use marijuana and finding out a better way of regulating it than the one we use now."
Barnhart is a Democrat from Eugene, a city where it's not too hard to find people in favor of relaxing marijuana laws.
One local told me, "I'm a chronic pothead. I smoke pot every day."
Okay, not everybody in Eugene is quite as excited about the idea as Colton Morris. More people I spoke with were like Robert Hutchings. He says basically, why not put marijuana on par with alcohol?
"I think it's a great idea. I think we waste a lot of time and resources trying to control it. I think we could end up taxing it and making money available for things like treatment."
But Hutchings adds he doesn't plan to touch the stuff if recreational marijuana is legalized.
"No. I used my quota up back in the 80's."
Now, no one is predicting Oregon lawmakers will simply hold an up-or-down vote to legalize marijuana. Like Washington and Colorado, voters would probably get the final say. Representative Barnhart hopes to create a special joint committee that would roll out a referral to voters.
No pun intended.
As Barnhart explains, “All joint means is that it has members of both the House and the Senate on it.”
The idea is a public vote in November 2014. Part of the reason he’s optimistic the legislative votes may be there is that lawmakers would rather write their own initiative than rely on marijuana activists to write it for them.
One of those activists, Paul Stanford, says he's cool with that.
"If the legislature refers a bill to the people, then we will withdraw our initiative."
Stanford was a chief petitioner on a marijuana legalization measure that made it to the ballot last year. It failed, but the long-time pot activist thinks it's only a matter of time before Oregon follows in the footsteps of its neighbor to the north.
"I think that the votes in Washington and Colorado have changed the whole dynamic," he says. "And the people of the state of Oregon are ready to regulate marijuana for adult use."
Something else that’s changed: The U.S. Justice Department announced recently it will take a hands-off approach to state marijuana laws. Of course, not everyone thinks Oregon is ready.
"I think somewhere along the line you've gotta take a stand," says Republican state representative Andy Olson. The retired Oregon state cop thinks legalization would make the drug more widely available for children. And he just thinks it’s bad for society.
"I think the whole idea of suggesting that we move forward with marijuana in allowing it to be recreational use is wrong and it will have serious impact on our country."
But even Olson says he can see that -- given how public opinion on this issue has changed so much in the last few decades -- marijuana legalization in Oregon is probably inevitable.