In a conference room at Gard Communications’ third-floor downtown Portland office last October, three legal strategists added final edits to a draft (the 26th) of the Control, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana and Industrial Hemp Act. Around the table sat Anthony Johnson, executive director of a pro-legalization PAC called New Approach; Dave Kopilak, a business attorney with the Portland-based Crux Law Group; and Bradley Steinman, a cannabis-law-reform advocate and recent graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School. Their goal: craft an initiative palatable to at least 50.1 percent of Oregon voters. During my visit, they checked and rechecked the measure’s language about taxation of cannabis extracts.
A decade-long Portland resident, Johnson believes New Approach’s initiative improves on Washington and Colorado’s legalization efforts, not to mention Oregon’s Measure 80—the 2012 ballot measure that failed 54–46 percent. The soft-spoken 36-year-old former high school offensive/defensive lineman drafted the new initiative with the financial backing of in-state and national drug policy groups, including the late founder of Progressive insurance, Peter Lewis ($96,000), and the George Soros–underwritten Drug Policy Alliance ($50,000). His legal team checked with the Oregon Department of Revenue to match wording with existing laws guiding alcohol.
“Our initiative will make the state safer by better prioritizing our law enforcement resources,” Johnson says. “It will create jobs, generating millions of dollars for schools, public safety, and substance-abuse treatment.”
Unlike the 2012 initiative, which offered no limits on possession and cultivation, New Approach’s proposal allows adults to possess up to eight ounces of cannabis and cultivate up to four plants. Producers will be taxed at $35 per ounce of flowers. (Leaves and immature plants are taxed differently.) Fifteen percent of tax revenues go to state police, 10 percent to city police, 10 percent to county law enforcement, 40 percent to education (via the state’s Common School Fund), and 25 percent to agencies dealing with mental health and substance abuse.
The initiative is a study in political pragmatism. It addresses all eight of the US Justice Department’s “points of light” on its first page. Polling suggests voters don’t like new government agencies, so the initiative calls for regulation by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC). Law enforcement would get more than one-third of tax revenue.
“My job if I’m a chief or a sheriff is to make sure my organization has the resources to go forward,” says retired DEA agent Schmidt. “I’m not watching day-to-day enforcement in the street. I’m watching the budget.”
Graham Boyd, former director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Drug Policy Litigation Project, has been involved in cannabis initiatives since 1996. New Approach Oregon, he says, “represents a very strong team of legal minds working on a responsible initiative at a time of growing voter support for our side of the issue.”
The morning after his legal team’s editing, Johnson bounded up a flight of wooden stairs to drop off the final, 35-page draft of the Control, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana and Industrial Hemp Act at the office of Portland-based Democracy Resources—“the national leader in ballot qualification,” proclaims the company website. This is the organization that will file the paperwork with the state. The same week, a nationwide poll showed the highest support ever for cannabis legalization. To qualify the measure for the ballot, proponents must gather 87,213 signatures.
“This is a lot of work for something voters might not have to see,” Johnson says with a chuckle. “Signature-gathering is our backup plan. If the legislature steps to the plate during the February session and sends its own legalization question to voters, it’ll save us $250,000-500,000 in campaigning costs.”
As this magazine went to press, it remained to be seen whether, during the frantic one-month session it holds in even years, the Oregon legislature will craft its own proposal to end marijuana prohibition. “We’ll certainly look at what (New Approach) has put together,” said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Democrat who represents south Lane and north Douglas Counties. He believes the legislature should send a measure on November’s ballot that tests voters’ resolve on legalization but then bounces crafting of the details back to lawmakers.
A practicing prosecutor, Prozanski says drug policy “needs to be dealt with in a different setting” than a courtroom. “The drug war is a poor allocation of resources,” he says. “Prohibition wound up creating a criminal economy.” He hopes his Salem colleagues—Republicans included—will “realize it’s better for the legislature to have its voice in how it’s done: fair levels of taxation that will be revenue-positive for the state.” On November 22, Prozanski introduced draft legislation aimed at putting a legalization proposal before voters this year. One way or another, Prozanski declared, “Voters will be asked if they want cannabis legalization in 2014, and I think they’ll say yes.”
OK, imagine Prozanski’s right and ganja becomes as legal as alcohol: will every Plaid Pantry become a pot shop? Not likely. The New Approach initiative would empower the OLCC to “grant, refuse, suspend, or cancel licenses for the sale, processing, or production of marijuana items, or other licenses in regard to marijuana items.” Other sections of the iniative address how and to whom licenses will be granted (and mechanisms for refusal and revocation). Whether this law or a proposal from the legislature goes to voters, any legalization scheme will almost certainly call for a future cannabis industry regulated like alcohol for adult use.
And what then? Will the relative merits of craft-grown sativas and indicas be parsed as blithely as the latest microbrews in Portland and Bend pubs? Prozanski envisions societal acceptance of the plant. “We don’t have a free-for-all with alcohol,” he says. “We have open-container laws, and I can foresee licensed establishments providing cannabis access.”
For Cannabliss’s Price, such a new law would provide certainty: “It would make it a lot easier to operate,” he says. “Starting an industry requires it.”
Retired federal drug agent Schmidt doesn’t foresee an immediate bonanza from legalization. “It’ll take some time for former black-market operators to even learn how to pay taxes, and have willingness to do paperwork,” he says. “Once everything balances out and the industry is accepted as a legitimate one, it will generate revenue.”
For Oregon, legalization holds the promise of $100 million in annual savings on enforcement and incarceration and new tax revenues, according to Harvard’s Miron in his 2012 study of the implications of federal legalization.
For Medford’s Lori Duckworth, legalization holds hope, though far from a guarantee, of staying out of jail. In Washington, at least, prosecutors began dropping cases as soon as voters passed a legalization measure. “It’s torn our lives apart to be persecuted this way,” she says. “So that nobody else has to deal with this kind of injustice, hopefully cannabis will be legal long before our case ever goes to a jury.”