Oregon, the first state to decriminalize marijuana in the modern era and one of the first to approve a medical marijuana law, could become a battleground for marijuana reform again this year. Two separate initiatives, one aimed at improving the state's existing medical marijuana program, and one that seeks to legalize and regulate marijuana and hemp, are campaigning to be certified for the November ballot.
The medical marijuana initiative, I-28, would create a system of state-regulated dispensaries and state-licensed medical marijuana producers. Dispensaries would have to be Oregon nonprofits, and pay a $2,000 license fee and a 10% tax on gross sales. Licensed producers would have to pay a $1,000 license fee and the 10% tax. Patients registered under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program would be able to buy their supplies at any dispensary, and dispensaries would be able to buy from any licensed producer.
I-28 would not stop patients from growing their own, nor would it impede them from resorting to a caregiver, as they can do currently.
"Our medical marijuana law lacks an effective supply system," said John Sajo of Voter Power, the group behind both the passage of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act in 1998 and the current initiative to reform it. "The law is pretty good on keeping patients from getting arrested, but has produced very mixed results in terms of actually getting patients their medicine. A supply system that relies on patients producing their own medicine is primitive. Instead, we'd like to do it like California, where they can go to a dispensary and have myriad choices," he said.
The current system, which does not allow for medical marijuana sales, results in thousands of patients begging their medicine from other patients, Sajo said, and leaves thousands more with without an adequate supply or with no supply at all. "The law works well for you if you live on a farm or have good social skills, but if you're terminally ill in a hospice, you might be out of luck," he said.
But the California dispensary system is often criticized in Oregon as little more than money-grubbing capitalism at odds with Oregon values that exploits patients. The Oregon medical marijuana community contains a sizeable contingent that holds to beliefs and values that might seem quaint or unusual in the rest of the country, especially in light of the recent debate over health care reform: that patients should not have to pay for their medicine and that no one should be profiting from sick patients.
"We face a barrage of criticism that we will be exploiting patients and selling medicine at top dollar, but we've done everything we can to structure the system to avoid that," said Sajo. "We will be taking the best from California and avoiding the worst. There are places there, like Harborside and the Berkeley Patients Group, that are excellent members of the community, that fund social services, that provide high-quality labeled medicine. I think our Oregon dispensary system, with its uniform statewide regulation, will tend to create a system like that rather than one like in Los Angeles, with its fly-by-night dispensaries."
Competing with I-28 for the interest and dollars of the marijuana community, as well as national reform groups, is the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act (OCTA) initiative campaign, which would legalize and deregulate hemp production, provide for licensed marijuana cultivation with the crop to be purchased by the state, and provide for sale to adults through a system of state stores. Its ballot summary reads as follows:
"... Measure replaces state, local marijuana laws except medical marijuana and driving under the influence laws; distinguishes 'hemp' from 'marijuana'; prohibits regulation of hemp. Creates agency to license marijuana cultivation by qualified persons and to purchase entire crop. Agency sells marijuana at cost to pharmacies, medical research facilities, and to qualified adults for profit through state stores. Ninety percent of net proceeds goes to state general fund, remainder to drug education, treatment, hemp promotion. Bans sales to, possession by minors. Bans public consumption except where signs permit, minors barred. Agency to regulate use, set prices, other duties; Attorney General to defend against federal challenges/prosecution. Provides penalties. Effective January 1, 2011"
The charge for OCTA is being led by Oregon NORML. The time is right, said Oregon NORML executive director Madeline Martinez. "Our position is that our initiative is the right initiative at the right time," said Martinez. "We are emphasizing the Oregon cannabis control commission and the industrial hemp angle. With hemp, we can get some green jobs going."
"Paul Stanford is funding a lot of this effort," said Martinez, referring to the medical marijuana entrepreneur who operates clinics in four states -- Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Michigan -- under the auspices of The Hemp Cannabis Foundation. Stanford also heads the Campaign for the Restoration and Regulation of Hemp (CRRH), a political action committee, which will be helping to fund the initiative effort.
But while signature gathering for I-28 is well underway, OCTA has yet to begin signature gathering -- and the clock is ticking toward a July 2 deadline. OCTA has been delayed by a last-minute challenge to its ballot title, which the Oregon Supreme Court just resolved yesterday. That leaves I-28 much better positioned at this point to actually make the November ballot.
"Oregon law requires that we turn in signatures gathered by paid signature gatherers monthly," said Sajo. "We turned in 60,000 signatures in January, 7,000 more in February, 8,000 more in March, and an additional 15,000 signatures gathered by volunteers. That means we've collected over 90,000 signatures, and since we only need 82,000 to qualify, now we're working on the buffer. We are aiming at 120,000 to 130,000. If we turn in signatures by May 21, the state will verify those we've turned in and tell us how many are valid, and we will still have until the July 2 deadline to collect any more that we need."
"We have a little over 90 days to gather all the OCTA signatures, and that will put a squeeze on us, but our campaign is ready and we've got everybody at the starting gate ready to run out and gather them once we get the go-ahead," said Martinez. "We are still confident about our prospects."
"We are currently in the process of collecting pledges from people who really want to sign the petitions," said OCTA director of field operations Kyndall Mason. "Our ballot title was challenged, and that's being deliberated on the fast-track by the state Supreme Court, but this delay is not helpful. Still, we've been laying low and building grassroots support."
It's not just grassroots support. In addition to the dollars coming from Paul Stanford, OCTA can also count on some out-of-state support, including a series of six concerts by musician John Trudell, and appearances by national NORML officers. NORML founder Keith Stroup has already been out campaigning, the organization has committed to a small campaign donation, and NORML will hold its annual conference this year in Portland, or "Potland," as some Oregon activists are referring to it.
And OCTA activists continue to seek support. "We're in the process of outreach to national groups," said Mason. "We're getting individual donations, and we have some house parties lined up, but thanks to Paul Stanford we have a lot of funding right now."
Like I-28, OCTA needs 82,769 valid signatures by July 2 to make the November ballot. But because of the ballot title challenge, OCTA is going to have to collect them in a compressed time period.
"We think we'll start signature gathering in mid-April, and we're pretty confident we will be able to turn in enough to qualify. We want to collect 125,000 signatures to have that margin of comfort," said Mason. "We don't see any reason to postpone this at this point. All of us really agree that now is the time to capture the momentum that is out there."
As with OCTA, money is a concern for I-28, too. Voter Power is taking on the bulk of responsibility for financing the campaign, said Sajo. "We did get a Marijuana Policy Project grant and we just got a small grant from the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), but otherwise, we're just raising money from small contributors and from our medical marijuana clinics."
"Our grants program approved $25,000 to help I-28 qualify for the ballot," confirmed DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann. "We've done our due diligence, and our sense is that this initiative is a winner. It will help resolve a bunch of issues with the Oregon medical marijuana program."
Voter Power operates four clinics in Oregon, said Sajo, but he also noted that the medical marijuana business has become more competitive. "Our market share is declining at the same time we are trying to fund this political effort," he said.
There is some tension between the two initiative campaigns -- OCTA supporters accuse an I-28 advocate of doing the last-minute ballot title challenge that has delayed their signature-gathering -- and leaders of both campaigns are striving to minimize them, but haven't quite mastered that old adage about "if you can't say something nice..."
"Oregon NORML doesn't take a stand on I-28," said Martinez, but couldn't resist adding: "Dispensaries are so '90s. There is such a small segment of Oregonians who could create revenue from the dispensaries in comparison to the 357,000 Oregonians who consume cannabis. If we're looking at this from a revenue perspective and we're serious, it's only logical to look at the larger population, and that's cannabis consumers, not medical marijuana patients."
"We haven't taken a formal position on OCTA," said Voter Power's Sajo. "Informally, we'd like to see something like that happen, but we're not sure the timing is right to do it this year. We do support taxing and regulating marijuana, and we'll vote for it if it qualifies, but in terms of strategies for our movement, trying to do two initiatives at the same time divides our resources and creates confusion. We don't think OCTA is ready for prime-time."
But for many Oregon activists the internecine sniping is beside the point. "We absolutely support both initiatives," said Melanie Bariskis of Southern Oregon NORML, "but the problem is that OCTA is not yet ready for circulation. Right now, we are pushing I-28 and gathering signatures for it. We support OCTA philosophically, and we will support it with signature gathering when it is ready."
We will know by early July whether either, neither, or both initiatives make the November ballot. Perhaps by then, Oregon's medical and recreational marijuana communities can take those rifles they're using in their circular firing squads and begin aiming them at their real foes.