We could get the stoner jokes out of the way now. Is Oregon’s marijuana legalization initiative counting on a high turnout? Will the campaign end with the sweet smell of success? Will the campaign spokesman be Willie Nelson? (Actually, he already supports the measure.)
The 88,887 Oregonians whose signatures were validated Friday deserve a full, serious debate on their measure, which addresses a current drug situation that nobody can consider acceptable. Four decades into the War on Drugs, drug use persists, America’s prisons have exploded in size, and Mexico and Colombia have turned into slaughterhouses.
But the drugs themselves have also piled up substantial casualties, and few Oregonians would likely cheer for a policy that produces increased use, especially among minors.
This year, Oregon will be one of three states, along with Washington and Colorado, voting on effective legalization of marijuana. In some ways, the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act is more expansive than the other two, with no limits on amounts for personal possession or personal cultivation. It bans sales to minors — advocates call this an improvement over the present situation, where there is no difference between selling to minors and adults — and leaves ground rules to be set by a new Oregon Cannabis Commission.
A recent Public Policy Polling survey shows Oregonians opposed to legalization 46 percent to 43 percent, while 50 percent of Washingtonians supported it. A Rasmussen poll found Coloradans backing that state’s measure, 61 percent to 27 percent. As with gay marriage, attitudes tend to break along generational lines, suggesting that legalization arguments are not about to go away.
Any of the three measures would have a major impact, not only in the state involved but in other states, where nearby legalization could drop the price and increase the amount in circulation. As with medical marijuana, any state passing legalization should prepare for a long conversation with the federal government.
“Legalization is unprecedented — not even the Netherlands has done it — it is entirely possible it will happen this year,” Jonathan Caulkins, a professor at Carnegie Mellon and co-author of “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know,” said this week in Washington, D.C.
“The effects will be enormous.”
All these issues maximize the need for an intensive conversation about the measure that’s just qualified for Oregon’s ballot. Our current situation is unsatisfactory, and widespread opposition to enforcing marijuana laws helped drive Ellen Rosenblum’s becoming attorney general. There is a rising argument that marijuana might more productively be regulated and taxed, like alcohol or tobacco.
On the other hand, a widespread expansion of marijuana use in Oregon might well put its own considerable burden on the state’s medical and social resources.
In 2010, The Oregonian opposed an initiative broadly expanding access to medical marijuana on the grounds that it was a devious back-door approach to legalization and that if Oregonians wanted that debate they should have it directly.