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Oregon rolls up different plan for marijuana

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Posted at 2:58 PM, Oct 08, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-08 14:58:03-04

Matt Price sells 100 different kinds of edibles, tinctures, buds and other marijuana offerings to the patients who frequent Cannabliss, the medical dispensary he opened up in Portland, Oregon, in a historic brick building that once served as a fire station.

Unlike in Washington state, Price's medical marijuana business is licensed by the state, and all the pot he sells is subject to mandatory testing and labeling.

The 28-year-old entrepreneur says he's now ready for his next step -- an expansion into recreational marijuana if Oregon voters pass a measure this fall that would legalize pot sales to anyone 21 years of age or older.

"We've had inspections," Price said, referring to medical marijuana dispensaries. "We're already abiding by the laws. So being first up for recreational makes logical sense."

The expansion of Oregon medical marijuana marketers into recreational sales would mark a very different industry evolution than in Washington, where there is a sharp separation between heavily regulated pot shops open to all adults and a much bigger medical marijuana trade with scant government oversight.

In Oregon, the wording of the 35-page ballot measure assures that there would be plenty of other differences from the legalization of marijuana in Washington:

  • The Oregon initiative would allow people to grow up to four plants in their homes, a practice prohibited under Washington's marijuana law. Oregon would allow users to possess 8 ounces of pot for recreational use at home, compared with 1 ounce in Washington.
  • In hopes of creating a more efficient industry, the Oregon initiative would allow for a single business enterprise to grow, process and sell marijuana. In Washington, separate businesses are required for each of those functions.
  • In Oregon, there would be no driver-impairment level set for THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, as there is in Washington.
  • Taxes on recreational pot would be much lower in Oregon, in hopes of drying up the black market.

One study by EcoNorthwest for initiative proponents projects that the state's recreational marijuana could sell for $145 an ounce, which is far less than prices now charged in Washington recreational stores.

"We definitely learned the need to implement an effective tax rate that brings marijuana out of the criminal market into the regulated market," said Anthony Johnson, an Oregon attorney who is the initiative's chief petitioner.

Voters in Alaska and the District Columbia also will cast ballots this fall on whether to legalize recreational pot.

In Oregon, proponents are hoping to build on the momentum created by successful legalization initiatives approved in 2012 in Washington and Colorado. The state has one of the highest marijuana-use rates in the nation and legions of skilled growers who grow renowned strains of pot on secluded rural acreage, much of it in southern Oregon.

The measure has some high-profile supporters, including U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, the long-serving Oregon Democrat who has argued forcefully for legalization.

But that doesn't mean that legal pot is just around the corner.

In 2012, Oregon voters rejected a legislative initiative. And a recent Survey USA poll conducted for KATU-TV in late September found that Oregonians backed the measure only by 44 percent to 40 percent. The heaviest support was among young people ages 18 to 34, who typically don't turn out in force in midterm elections.

"I would not be surprised if it fails. It is very much up in the air and a fairly close race right now, " said Tim Hibbitts, chief political analyst for DHM Research in Portland.

Supporters have raised about $1.7 million, nearly 10 times the amount raised by opponents.

But the No On 91 campaign, largely funded by the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association, has mounted a more organized campaign than opponents to Washington's 2012 initiative.

The group's director, Mandi Puckett, is a substance-abuse counselor and mother of three who has focused on the risks that children could face from having marijuana in the house.

At a Portland news conference last week, she held up a large 8-ounce baggy stuffed with hops to represent the amount of legal marijuana that could be kept in a home, along with an array of candies and other sweets that, in Colorado, may now be infused with marijuana.

"These products appeal to kids. I do not want my child to take a gummy bear from a friend at school and think it's a gummy bear, when it's actually marijuana," Puckett said.

The initiative also faces ambivalence, and even outright hostility, from some of those who make their living from marijuana. Some growers worry that legalization will result in costly new regulations and open the door to big corporate players who will dominate the markets.

"It's definitely buzzing out there. There are people definitely dead-set against it," said a longtime grower in Southern Oregon who said he is still undecided on how to vote and asked to remain anonymous.

"These are people whose main goal with any government agency has been to avoid them at all costs," said Matt Walstatter, a dispensary owner and indoor cultivator who is working to build support among growers for legalizing marijuana. "Now we're asking them to step out of the shadows to trust that they are going to be safe, and to make public a lot of things that their livelihoods depend on hiding. And taxes are one of those things."