PORTLAND — The Yes on 91 office here, a rented suite on the second floor of a drab professional building by the convention center, is full of moms. They're staging a press conference in favor of Oregon's ballot measure to legalize marijuana — a dueling production to the moms across town who are holding their own event railing against it.
To clarify, the Yes on 91 moms don't want to legally buy marijuana. Nor do they want their kids to have access to it. In fact, that's their argument.
"With no regulation, marijuana is sold everywhere," says Leah Maurer, a stay-at-home mom of three who's been volunteering for the campaign. "It's sold on the streets, in parks, outside schools, under the bleachers at baseball and basketball games."
She holds up a photo, for the benefit of the four television cameras that have crammed into the makeshift press conference room, showing edible THC lollipops with smiley faces painted on them. "This is what's out there right now. This is what this looks like to our children," Maurer says. Then she holds up a second image — a sterile white vial with a label on it. "This is what it will look like," she says, "under Measure 91."
Broadly speaking, this is the campaign's particular mom-proof, skeptic-co-opting logic: Measure 91 is less pro-pot than pro-rules-on-pot. The people who want to smoke have likely already decided to vote for the law, and the people who think marijuana's evil are probably set against it. What's in between are all the Oregonians not particularly interested in their own personal access to marijuana who might be swayed that the state can better manage this market — and, say, a child's access to it — than drug dealers can.
Behind Maurer and half a dozen other moms, a few kids on their hips, Yes on 91 posters are taped to the wall that prominently spell out "REGULATE IT." The rest of the campaign's three-part mantra — "Legalize it. Tax it." — is printed much smaller underneath. All the emphasis is on the idea that marijuana here will be swaddled in oversight, not simply legal.
The full measure — on which Oregonians are already voting in their mail-in election — runs to 36 pages. It is the most regulated of the three marijuana proposals that initially tried to collect signatures this election cycle. And it's much tougher than the measure that failed here two years ago — a "wacky pot law," as ABC News put it at the time, that would have effectively put the state itself in the business of selling marijuana. That measure's preamble celebrated the fact that George Washington grew cannabis, too!
By contrast, says Anthony Johnson, the chief petitioner for the latest measure and a co-author of its many rules, "Measure 91 is the most regulated and strict marijuana measure ever voted upon in Oregon."
The most recent state-wide poll suggests that pitch is working: 52 percent of voters said they support the measure, 41 percent said they don't. The final result will depend heavily on voter turnout — support is particularly high among the groups typically least likely to vote.
The Measure 91 campaign in the meantime isn't particularly talking about the libertarian arguments that responsible adults should be able to smoke what they want, although about 80 percent of people polled in the state libertarian party support the measure ("I have a feeling," Johnson says, "that the 20 percent that don’t support it don’t support because they think it’s too regulated, too restricted, and it’s too much of a tax"). It's also not saying much about an argument that was central to Colorado's campaign: that marijuana is safer than alcohol.
Instead, Measure 91 has been drilling "regulate-it-legalize-it-tax-it" as if the phrase were one long word. For $20, you can order a "regulate it, legalize it, tax it" T-shirt (which might qualify is one of the few pieces of campaign swag ever to cheer a new regulatory regime). The press release that went out about the moms press conference announced that they had endorsed Measure 91 to "regulate, legalize and tax marijuana." In discussing the measure with Johnson, I never once heard him refer to legalization without its two inseparable cousins.
At one point while we were talking in the Measure 91 office, he needed to return a phone call to his mother. When I asked how she felt about the effort, he paused, then said: "She hasn’t always agreed with my politics. But now she's a supporter of regulating, legalizing and taxing marijuana."
Amid all of the regulations contained in the measure, Oregon has tried to improve on the two-year-old laws already in place in Colorado and Washington. Those two states have left open confusion about drug-free workplaces; Oregon's measure explicitly states that employers will retain the right to drug test. Colorado permits up to six plants per person, or 12 per household, for home growers; Oregon tops out at four plants and eight ounces per household. Like Washington, Oregon will rely on the state liquor control commission to regulate marijuana, and like Oregon's own alcohol laws, local communities will retain the right to vote on going dry (or pot-free?).
Washington's tax scheme has made legal pot so expensive that it has struggled to compete with the black market. Oregon will charge only one tax, a $35 per ounce sales tax on the final purchase, an amount that's designed to make marijuana cheap enough to undermine the black market, while expensive enough to generate tax revenue for drug treatment, law enforcement and school funding.
If Oregon sufficiently undermines the black market, marijuana wouldn't be sold, as Maurer puts it, "everywhere." And where it is sold, government would control access the same way it does to age-restricted alcohol. Teens of course still get their hands on beer, as they will no doubt still get their get their hands on marijuana — a point the moms opposed to Measure 91 make. If you don't want your kid to smoke marijuana, the question is whether you think a regulated world — one that comes with tighter control but greater public acceptance of pot — will create the lesser of two evils.
"Think about the repeal of prohibition of alcohol," Johnson says. "Voters and concerned citizens still wanted to know there’s somebody checking IDs, that alcohol’s being tested, labeled properly, sold in properly zoned areas. When you repeal, you didn’t have it legal so anybody could brew as much as they want and sell it."
Alcohol could never have been legalized either without taxing and regulating it, although the story of prohibition often isn't recalled that way: as a case of reasserting rules, not just removing bans. With marijuana — and with much of the rest of the country still hesitant — it may be easier to emphasize the first interpretation.
"After studying the issue, we’ve determined that’s the best policy," Johnson says of regulating-legalizing-and-taxing-marijuana. "It also happens to be what’s most palatable to voters."