AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka

Oregon marijuana proponents look north for a legalization blueprint

Wash. state's victorious cannabis drive, propelled by law enforcement officials, inspires Oregon's legalization campaign

Paul Stiegleder wants Oregon to legalize recreational marijuana. To punctuate his drive, he’s taken to the airwaves as part of a flurry of ads sponsored by proponents of Measure 91, which would green light pot use. But Stiegleder is not a typical cannabis supporter such as a longhaired bohemian or college-aged connoisseur. He’s a retired cop.

Stiegleder embodies the measure’s broad support among Oregon law enforcement officials. Prominent sheriffs, judges, prosecutors, and former U.S. attorneys have publicly endorsed the Yes on 91 campaign. And last week, Jeff Merkley, Oregon’s Democratic U.S. senator, said he would vote yes on the measure. In doing so, he became the first sitting U.S. senator to publicly support legal recreational marijuana.

But the ad blitz also underlines the clout Washington state’s pot law has had in Oregon’s push toward legalization. Oregon has copied a blueprint that proved successful in Washington in 2012, when U.S. attorneys, mayors and sheriffs publicly backed the legalization initiative. That support by law enforcement proved persuasive to voters and is credited with nudging the measure into law.

“We’ve learned a lot from them,” said Peter Zuckerman, a spokesman for the Yes on 91 campaign, referring to Washington state’s successful operation. “We’ve taken the best from Colorado and Washington and tailored it to Oregon.”

If approved, the Oregon measure would allow residents 21 and older to possess up to eight ounces of marijuana, a sizeable increase over the single ounce Colorado and Washington users are allowed to posses. The Oregon law, regulated by the state’s Liquor Control Commission, would also allow people to grow up to four marijuana plants at home and store for personal use up to one pound of cannabis products, including brownies and cookies.

State tax profits generated by pot sales — estimated to net $41 million from 2017 to 2019, according to the Oregon Legislative Revenue Office — would go to public schools, which would receive 40 percent of revenues. The remaining funds would be steered toward law enforcement groups and drug treatment programs. Only growers would be taxed, $35 per ounce, a move tailored to allow legal pot to compete with the black market.

"The evidence keeps coming in. Our new approach is working," says John Urquhart, sheriff of Washington state's King County, in another Yes on 91 ad indicative of Washington's sway on Oregon. "Month by month, tax dollars are going to schools and police, not the drug cartels. Wasteful arrests are way down. DUIs are down. Drug prevention programs are getting funded. Strict regulations are working. Here, it's really better already.

But Washington's law varies drastically from Measure 91, say Oregon legalization opponents. The Oregon initiative, they say, would lead to higher teen use. That, in turn, will make Oregon’s byways more dangerous. Mandi Puckett, director of the No on 91 campaign, points out that Oregon has no DUI provision. And if the initiative is approved, she has little faith that one will be ironed out in the 13 months reserved for drafting further restrictions before pot sales begin.

It’s a “David versus Goliath” fight against pot proponents, said Puckett, who admits that her campaign is underfunded. The nearly $200,000 raised by the No on 91 outfit — a miniscule amount compared to the $3.3 million cannabis proponents have garnered — has primarily gone to a mail drive targeting mothers. It warns them of the threat that marijuana edibles, in the form of THC-laden candies and lollipops, would pose to their children. There is nothing in the measure, according to Puckett, that prevents marijuana stores from popping up across the state with marijuana-infused gummy bears, chocolates and sodas to entice children.

“If you look at the measure, there are a lot of holes in it,” said Puckett. “Our number one concern is our youth.”

Youths, albeit in the form of young voters, are also a concern for the Yes on 91 campaign. Oregon proponents know that young voters were critical in the passage of the Colorado and Washington state laws in 2012. And with Oregon polls predicting a very close race, the outcome could hinge on the youth vote, which tends to shrink during midterm elections.

Yes on 91 has worked hard, and allocated considerable amounts of money, on college campus voter-registration drives. They have also encouraged voters to mail in their ballots — Oregonians vote entirely by mail — aware that youths are not accustomed to using traditional mail services. To that end, mail drop boxes have been set up on college campuses across the state. Yes on 91 has also heavily promoted the site Didtheyvote.org, which allows users to see if their Facebook friends have voted, and to remind them to vote if they have not.

“We’ve been working to make our case to every Oregon voter,” said Zuckerman, of Yes on 91, while acknowledging that the youths tend to be less consistent voters. “We’ve been trying the current approach to marijuana for nearly 80 years here in Oregon. The numbers make it clear that it is not working.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter