Oregon: Legislature Considers Legalizing, Taxing Marijuana

There is a truth that must be heard!By Steve Elliott
Hemp News

Oregon lawmakers are looking at a plan to legalize and tax marijuana under House Bill 3371, scheduled for an April 2 public hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill would legalize the production, processing and sale of cannabis and cannabis-infused products, reports Yuxing Zheng of The Oregonian. Adults 21 and older would be allowed to grow up to six mature marijuana plants and 24 ounces of dried cannabis, the same amounts currently allowed for patients under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act.

The Oregon Health Authority would be in charge of licensing marijuana producers, processors, wholesalers and retailers under HB 3371. Meanwhile, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission would oversee the taxation of cannabis.

Marijuana producers would be taxed $35 per ounce under the bill. That money would go to a "Cannabis Tax Account," 40 percent of which would go to state schools, with 20 percent each going to Oregon State Police, the general fund, and services for mental health, alcoholism and drugs.

If passed, HB 3371 would take effect on July 1, 2014.

While the voters of neighboring Washington, along with Colorado, legalized marijuana at the ballot box in November, pot remains illegal under federal law, under which it is considered a Schedule I controlled substance, the most dangerous category which also contains heroin.

Paul Stanford, the man behind last year's unsuccessful Measure 80 legalization effort in Oregon (and the owner of Hemp News), told us that while he's cautiously optimistic about the chances of HB 3371 in the Legislature, he's not putting all his legalization eggs in one basket.

"We're modestly hopeful that the Legislature will pass HB 3371 this session, but if they don't, we're not going to wait until the special session in 2014," Stanford said on Tuesday.

If the measure doesn't pass, Stanford said, "We'll be filing at least legalization initiatives in April, and getting ballot titles in May. As soon as the ballot titles are determined, we'll poll them, and see which ones do best."

According to Stanford, two of the initiatives will be statutory, and the third will be a constitutional amendment. The first two will be differentiated from each other mainly by putting different agencies in charge of marijuana licensing and taxation.

The third one, the constitutional amendment, will be more general and less detailed in nature, Stanford said.

"Soon, we may have our neighbor to the north collecting tax revenue from Oregon residents, when Oregon should be collecting that revenue," said Anthony Johnson, director of New Approach Oregon, a political action committee made up of a coalition of pro-legalization groups. "Marijuana is safer than alcohol, and it makes sense to regulate it like alcohol."

The coalition includes Stanford, along with Madeline Martinez of the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (OR NORML), according to Johnson. Stanford told us that the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is also signing on to the effort, and that DPA representatives would be visiting the state on April 22.

"We believe that with changing demographics, the fact that Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana, the fact that gay marriage might be on the ballot, that 2014 might be a possible venue to legalize marijuana at the ballot box," Johnson said.

Another pro-legalization group, the Marijuana Policy Project, is separately preparing to place an initiative on the 2016 ballot, according to Roy Kaufmann, the group's Oregon spokesman.

House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) said HB 3371 she's interested in "exploring the possibilities" the bill offers, but wonders whether it's "too complex" to get through the Legislature. "Maybe it's something we start this session" but finish next year, she said.

"That's a pretty big lift for us," Kotek said. "I don't think we could get it done this session."

In a quite unusual twist, it's unclear exactly which lawmaker introduced the bill. It was introduced as a House Revenue Committee bill, but committee chairman Rep. Phil Barnhart (D-Eugene) said he doesn't know which legislator was behind it.

But, he said, the lawmakers should take a look at it, since it's become "quite obvious" that the prohibition of marijuana "is about to change, whether we like it or not," he said.

"We'd better make sure the system we have in place is protecting kids and is built in such a way that you have regulatory capacity," Barnhart said. "If we can manage it, I'd like some tax revenue out of it."

According to the language of the bill, it is intended to direct Oregon's limited law enforcement resources more effectively. But many state law enforcement officials, sadly, oppose legalization.

"Oregon sheriffs are opposed to the measure and will be active in the legislative process opposing it," said Holly Russell, executive director of the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association.