A measure before voters Nov. 6 would allow adults to buy marijuana legally from their neighborhood, state-run pot store.
Supporters say Measure 80 would create a lucrative revenue stream for state coffers and reduce money spent on police, courts and jails to enforce existing marijuana laws.
The Oregon Cannabis Commission would regulate the cultivation and sale of marijuana, and assure high-quality product. It would license qualified applicants, purchase marijuana from the growers, and sell it through OCC stores. For medical marijuana patients, the marijuana would be sold at cost.
Opponents believe the act would increase abuse and illegal sales of the drug, especially out of state, and they criticize a provision that would require the state attorney general to not only "vigorously defend" the law but advocate for a federal act legalizing marijuana, as well.
Whatever the outcome, both sides agree approving the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act would put the state on track for a head-on collision with federal anti-marijuana laws — and likely a Supreme Court test case over states' rights.
Washington and Colorado also have marijuana legalization measures on the Nov. 6 ballot.
What the measure would do
Measure 80 would legalize and tax marijuana in Oregon much like alcohol is now.
It would establish a state commission that would license growers, buy marijuana from them, and sell it to consumers through state-run stores.
Residents older than 21 could grow and use their own marijuana legally. And hemp could be grown for fiber, protein or oil without regulation, license or fee.
The act includes provisions to ensure no marijuana is sold to minors, to discourage illicit sales, to protect the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act and to ensure state-sold marijuana is safe and of good quality.
The proposed law is spearheaded by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The group's website, octa2012.org, says it would generate $140 million a year for the state while cutting $61.5 million in costs for law enforcement, judicial cases and corrections.
Under the act, 90 percent of the revenue from state marijuana sales would go to the general fund, 7 percent to drug treatment programs and 1 percent each to drug education in schools, promotion of the hemp industry and development of biodiesel fuel made from hemp seeds.
The pot would be sold at "safe access points" run by the state and could be smoked, ingested or vaporized for inhaling, said Lori Duckworth, director of Southern Oregon NORML in Medford.
"You'll see crime go down and the black market diminish," Duckworth said. "There'll be less access for our children because they're required to show ID. Law enforcement will be free to go chase real criminals and gangs and unregistered sex offenders. Meth and heroin are the real crimes here, not Johnny Pothead.
"This is making it safe for responsible adult use and taking it out of the hands of law enforcement," Duckworth said. "People smoke it whether it's legal or not. This is for people who smoke a doobie in their backyard, watch TV and go to bed, same as beer."
Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston, who is retiring in December, disputes the notion legalizing marijuana would reduce the burden on law enforcement.
He believes violations would shift to those selling to minors, those selling home-grown on their own, and those selling marijuana out of state, where its quality undoubtedly would fetch a higher price.
"Legalization would encourage more people to get into sales. We're seeing that now, with medical marijuana," Huddleston said. "I anticipate it's not going to decrease our workload and it will increase the abuse and illegal sales. Law enforcement is still going to have to be investigating marijuana sales."
If pot is to be legalized, Huddleston said, this isn't the measure to do it with.
"It's too tempting. ... The way is to have it grown by the state and sold in only user quantities," he said.
Both Huddleston and retired Medford police Chief Randy Schoen fear Oregon's rich soils and mild climate, which are conducive to cultivating potent marijuana, would make it the pot-growing capital of the nation.
"Oregon will likely become a destination growing spot, with sales to areas of the country where it's prohibited," Schoen said, adding towns would be powerless to keep pot farms and stores out of their neighborhoods.
He said enforcement efforts declined considerably with medical marijuana legalization, but pot use and sales "went way beyond" what the original act intended.
"I'm concerned this measure will take it to the next level," he said.
Face-off with the feds
State Reps. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, and Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, co-chairmen of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, agree Measure 80 could lead to a clash with the federal government but part ways on the act itself.
Buckley has publicly come out in support of Measure 80.
"As taxpayers, you'll be very happy with the revenues going in the general fund instead of to prohibition," Buckley said. "It's similar to alcohol: You regulate and you tax it — except alcohol is much more addictive."
Richardson concedes legalizing marijuana would fatten state coffers, but he considers pot a "gateway drug" and not good for society.
"Legalization will dramatically increase illegal activity that causes problems with federal authorities and brings in organized crime," he said.
The two House members both expressed concern over a possible clash with the federal government. But Buckley said the process involved would help mitigate that.
"Things won't be different immediately because the feds have to give Oregon and other states the ability to proceed," Buckley said, referring to Colorado and Washington's initiatives.
"So we'll have to be very cautious in setting up oversight. Eventually, it might have to go to the Supreme Court, because of the stigma."
Richardson, a lawyer, was less certain of reaching a deal with federal authorities.
"It brings to a head the issue of federalism, contained in the 10th Amendment," Richardson said. "Marijuana is not constitutionally protected, so it will bring to a head the federal government's right to (act against it)."
Richardson called it "not an easy issue ... one with lots of unanswered questions about its effect on society."
"It's a roll of the dice for Oregon to be first," he said.
Richardson said legalization would reduce prosecutions, but "all laws carry a message, and legalizing marijuana is an endorsement of its use and it can be argued that's negative.
"It seems there's no argument that it's positive for society," Richardson said.
Attorney general would be pot advocate
The Oregon Cannabis Tax Act would require the state attorney general to "vigorously defend" the act and anyone prosecuted for acts that are legal under its provisions. The attorney general also would be required to propose a federal act to all members of Congress and international organizations, and urge its adoption through "all legal and appropriate means."
Huddleston said the provision is "essentially making (the attorney general) a marijuana ambassador." Schoen said it poses a major legal problem, as the attorney general would be defending people who were in violation of federal law.
What citizens think
"It would reduce the prison population and the cost to the community of the whole legal process," said David Landry of Medford. "It's already incredibly available to anyone who wants it, so that's not the issue. Teens will still get marijuana regardless. The law funds drug education, and that's the key, getting out science-based information about the impact of pot on the developing brain."
A retiree from teaching special needs in area schools, Laura Grosz of Medford, speaking in an interview at the Medford Growers Market, said she's seen what happens to kids when parents aren't fully functioning.
"It would mean more kids in less structured, less responsible families. It would be worse," said Grosz. "We don't need more people out of control and able to opt out of being cognizant about what they should be doing in life."
Backers say legalization and sales in state-run stores will keep pot out of the hands of those younger than 21, but Grosz disagreed, noting, "If (parents) buy it and have it in the home, teens will have access or they will find a friend (over 21) to buy it for them."
Since marijuana is so plentiful, said Barbara Witten of Medford: "I don't think anything will change. Enough people are doing it now that it won't matter. A friend says he's stopped going to cocktail parties and now just goes to pot parties. It may increase state revenues, but that's only in theory. If the feds want you out of business, you're out."
John Bartow of Phoenix had a similar take, noting: "There's not going to be a big change, just less people in jail for using something that's a natural plant. It would just be easier on everyone. There wouldn't be all these issues of polices and crimes if everyone has it."
Working on the front lines of addiction affords a very different picture of marijuana, said Christine Mason, executive director of Addictions Recovery Center in Medford.
"The primary drugs of choice are, one, alcohol, two, prescription drugs and opiates and, three, marijuana and meth," said Mason. "Marijuana is absolutely addictive. ... It stays in your system for days and will impair your ability to work, react and function normally."
Various studies have shown that the marijuana on the market today is far more powerful than it was decades ago, with the content of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical compound that creates the "high" in users, typically approaching 10 percent. THC content averaged below 2 percent in the 1970s, then began a fairly steady climb, according to the University of Mississippi's Potency Monitoring Project.
"It's a substance people have trouble with," Mason said. "The evidence is that it's a gateway drug, and we've seen its addiction grow over the years. My speculation is that, with legalization, it would grow more."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.