Op-Ed: Lawmakers should tackle marijuana legalization

The Oregonian, May 20, on legalizing marijuana

Only six months after the failure of the famously bad Measure 80, marijuana legalization advocates are demonstrating some serious smarts. We're just as surprised to say that as you probably are to hear it. But Measure 80 sponsor Paul Stanford and pro-pot group New Approach Oregon, who are eyeing the November 2014 ballot, have placed the Legislature in quite a bind: Lawmakers can help legalize pot, or they can render themselves completely irrelevant. Either way, marijuana legalization wins.

The pressure is mounting thanks, in part, to public opinion, which is far from discouraging to the legalization movement. Sixty-three percent of likely Oregon voters believe that marijuana should be taxed, regulated and legalized, according to a May poll commissioned by New Approach Oregon. This piggybacks on a March poll in which more than 80 percent of likely voters said they believe pot will be legalized in Oregon sooner or later.

About 50 percent of those polled in March by a different firm indicated support for marijuana legalization and regulation, which is about 13 percentage points lower than the May result. It's hard to know why the two polls differ so widely, says Dave Walker, a vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, which conducted the May poll. But the questions are worded differently, and the May poll is a little bit further removed from the 2012 election, giving Oregonians a chance to watch legalization unfold in a neighboring state, Washington. It's a much less threatening idea now than it might have been then, says Walker.

Clearly, a well-written legalization measure on the 2014 ballot would have a very good chance of passage. Unfortunately, a badly written measure would have a pretty good shot, too. The Legislature is in the perfect position to guide the process. New Approach Oregon has worked with lawmakers on a legalization proposal, House Bill 3371, that would require the state to tax and regulate marijuana and license stores in which it could be sold. Adults would be able to grow a small amount of marijuana for their own use. The bill is in committee.

New Approach Oregon would like the Legislature to vote either this session or during next year's session to send the proposal to the ballot. If that doesn't happen, direct democracy will take over.

To that end, Stanford who helped New Approach Oregon shape HB3371 says he'll contact the secretary of state's office this week to start the initiative machinery for two proposals, one an updated version of Measure 80 and the other a constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana. Stanford says he'll stop work on the two initiatives if lawmakers refer HB3371 to the ballot this session.

If that doesn't happen, several other things will. Stanford says he'll file a version of HB3371 as well, and then conduct some polling as soon as the three receive ballot titles. He will proceed with the initiative with the best chance of winning. Lawmakers should ask themselves whether they'd rather live with HB3371 or Measure 80, Part II. The most responsible measure may not poll the best.

It would have been difficult just a few years ago to imagine lawmakers asking voters to legalize marijuana. Now, it seems irresponsible for lawmakers not to. Oregonians likely voters, anyway support legalization, some version of which is certain to appear on the November 2014 ballot. Advocates have given lawmakers a chance to choose and shape the version that voters see. If they pass up that chance, they can hardly complain credibly about the result.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.