Do it right this time

Lawmakers wisely prepare to write their own marijuana legalization measure

Oregon lawmakers apparently have learned their lesson from years of tinkering with flaws in the medical marijuana system. Now they may draw up their own ballot measure to legalize recreational use of the drug to head off a badly written voter initiative.

Oregon's pioneering initiative system was designed to let the voters enact laws directly if the Legislature can't or won't. In practice, that power-to-the-people system too often results in poorly drafted measures that lawmakers must later fix.

Many observers were surprised last year when Washington and Colorado voters legalized marijuana but Oregon's measure failed. There was a reason for that. The Oregon initiative allowed users to possess and grow unlimited amounts of the drug and put oversight — such as it was — in the hands of a panel of marijuana growers and distributors.

This year, lawmakers tinkered again with the medical marijuana system, allowing state-licensed dispensaries to distribute marijuana to patients authorized to use it. Now, legislators on both sides of the aisle say they are ready write a ballot measure themselves rather than take their chances with an initiative drafted by activists.

Give them credit for reading the tea leaves. Public opinion is clearly swinging toward legalization. Voters are tired of seeing law enforcement devote significant resources to battling a popular intoxicant widely viewed as benign.

What's more, the federal government finally is showing signs of wising up. After years of treating marijuana as though it were as dangerous as heroin, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has announced that the Justice Department will not challenge state laws legalizing marijuana.

If lawmakers take on the task of drafting a ballot measure, it will benefit from the legislative process of committee hearings, testimony from interested parties, amendments and fine-tuning — all the elements that are missing from voter-drafted measures. Lawmakers need not vote yes or no themselves — they can merely present a well-written measure to the public and let the voters decide.

As Rep. Phil Barnhart, D-Eugene, said, "We ought to write the law we want."

That means age limits to keep marijuana out of the hands of children, dispensaries to control distribution and efforts to stymie criminal trafficking.

Legalization proponents are already working on initiatives that they will circulate if the Legislature fails to act. If it does act, Oregon voters will be well served in two ways: They will see their representatives responding to public opinion and they will be offered a well-written proposal that stands a chance of working the way it should.


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