Oregon voters approved a medical marijuana initiative in 1998, but balked Tuesday at a second initiative that would have increased access to medical marijuana by increasing the amounts patients and caregivers could possess and by creating a system of state-regulated medical marijuana dispensaries where patients could purchase marijuana. It would also have directed counties to make free medical marijuana available to indigent patients. The Oregon Medical Marijuana Act II (OMMA2), known as Measure 33 on the ballot, fell short by a margin of 58% to 42%, according to the Oregon Secretary of State's office.
While OMMA2 proponents (http://www.yeson33.org and http://www.voterpower.org) argued that deepening and broadening the state's existing medical marijuana program was necessary to ensure that patients were able to obtain adequate supplies of their medicine, opponents charged it was a charade aimed at legalizing the weed, it would draw unwanted federal attention, and it would allow criminal activity -- i.e. non-medicinal marijuana sales -- to flourish.
The measure attracted the typical array of opponents from the law enforcement and medical establishments, including the Oregon District Attorneys Association and the Oregon Medical Association, as well as a lightning visit by drug czar John Walters, who warned that the measure would turn Oregon into "a safe haven for drug trafficking." But in a divisive turn of events, it was also loudly opposed by original Oregon medical marijuana poster child Stormy Ray (http://www.stormyray.org), who went so far as to purchase space in the official election pamphlet denouncing OMMA2 as "turning our program over to the black market."
While OMMA2 backers were stung by Ray's attack, it was not key to the measure's failure, said John Sajo, a moving force behind both OMMA and OMMA2, and, incidentally, a former caregiver (grower) for Ray. "It was the money," Sajo said. "We tried to take a big step with a small budget. Our opponents tried to paint it as a legalization issue because it went so far, but to the degree we got our message out, I think we swayed the voters," he told DRCNet Wednesday. "We spend nearly $500,000 on TV ads, and that sounds like a lot, but at least three other initiatives on the ballot spent 10 times as much. $500,000 just wasn't enough to do it."
Even with the October infusion of advertising money courtesy of the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org), OMMA2 was not able to gain traction. In a September poll, the measure came in at 41%. Despite the late ad blitz, the measure gained only one percentage point by Election Day.
"Had we had more spending, I think this was very much in play," maintained Sajo. "We were hampered all along by being a low-budget operation. I think the bigger lesson for the drug reform movement from Oregon is that if we want to do anything more than take baby steps, we have to figure out how to find a lot more money. If we're just going to stand around waiting for Peter Lewis to hand out checks, we're in trouble."
The Oregon result represented "a yellow light" for the marijuana movement, said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "Voters have shown they are very willing to protect patients and take what they regard as moderate and reasonable steps," he told DRCNet. "They are a little more cautious when they see things that feel more daring or more likely to cause a fight with the feds. Oregon was a flashing yellow light, but it was an understandable hesitation about how far a state can go, not a repudiation of medical marijuana."
OMMA2 pushed the envelope in several directions, all of which apparently worried what should have been natural allies. The alternative paper Willamette Weekly ended up opposing the measure because of its provision requiring counties to set up dispensaries, while the Oregon Libertarian Party opposed it because it continued to require patients to register with the state. Other critics attacked OMMA2 provisions to allow health practitioners other than doctors to recommend medical marijuana, raising the specter of witch doctors okaying medicinal pot-smoking.
But for many opponents, and apparently many voters, OMMA2 was a stalking horse for legalization. "The failure of Measure 33 simply confirms my belief in the ability of Oregon's voters to spot a wolf in sheep's clothing," Benton County District Attorney Scott Heiser, a spokesman against the measure, told the Associated Press. "Measure 33 was nothing more than an attempt to legalize recreational drug use under the guise of helping the suffering," he said. "Obviously, the DAs of Oregon are very pleased to see the voters soundly rejecting this disingenuous measure."
The arguments of opponents like Heiser were no surprise, said Sajo, but the campaign also faced opposition, or equally damaging, complacency, from within the ranks of medical marijuana patients. "Stormy Ray hurt us," he said. "Her arguments were basically incomprehensible, but the fact that a former chief petitioner for OMMA was against it provided a peg for anyone with doubts to hang his hat on. Any time we got a minute or two to explain what she was saying to people, we could undo the damage. But we couldn't get to everybody."
Some of that opposition from within the ranks didn't make sense, Sajo complained. "Some argued that no one should make money selling medical marijuana -- somehow the stuff would fall from heaven, and money would ruin our wonderful system. But that's just silly; no other service in our society is divorced from money." Similarly, the Willamette Weekly's complaints that counties could lose money providing marijuana for sale to patients also struck Sajo as ludicrous. "Those clubs down in California are doing a million dollars a day in sales. You could lose money selling marijuana, I suppose," Sajo laughed, "but you would have to work real hard at it."
While OMMA2 was aimed at ensuring that even the state's sickest and poorest patients could gain access to medical marijuana, it seemed as if other patients, whose needs were being met under the current system, didn't care, Sajo complained. "The current law is very popular and moderately successful," he said, "and there is a tremendous amount of complacency. What we found is that trying to provide a system that actually took care of all the patients didn't really gain us anything. We were concerned about the ones too sick or disabled to grow their own medicine, but they are the sickest, and they couldn't help us much politically."