Wait, watch on legalization.
Just six months have passed since Oregonians defeated an initiative to legalize marijuana, and state lawmakers are discussing legislation that would let people buy licenses to produce, process and sell unlimited quantities of pot.
Well, discussing might be an overstatement. As The Register-Guard's Saul Hubbard reported Wednesday, only four people testified on a legalization proposal before the House Judiciary Committee before lawmakers sent it on a split vote to an uncertain fate in the Revenue Committee.
House Speaker Tina Kotek is willing to have lawmakers consider the broad issues surrounding legalization - how the state might tax marijuana, how much money it might generate, what restrictions should remain in place. The list goes on. But she recognizes that getting a measure through this session would be a "heavy lift." There's just too little time, information and political will to get it done.
That's both a correct assessment and a smart strategy for lawmakers who are willing to consider eventually turning marijuana from a quasi-tolerated drug into a legal crop that brings in new revenues for the state. The defeat of Measure 80 last year remains fresh on voters' minds and a legislative push for legalization would feel to many as if lawmakers are tone deaf to the message they sent last November when 54 percent of voters rejected a legalization initiative.
Advocates of legalization - and of House Bill 3371, the subject of Tuesday's Judiciary Committee hearing - argue that legalization is inevitable in Oregon. That change can happen, they say, through either legislative action or a voter-approved initiative, and they say the latter strategy would deprive lawmakers of a chance to craft "the smartest and safest cannabis bill in the nation."
Given the results of last fall's election, that's a risk worth taking. Lawmakers have reason to doubt their constituents are ready for even the best-crafted legalization law. A more thoughtful, methodical approach would allow Oregon to track Washington's and Colorado's experiments with legal pot so their mistakes can be avoided.
As for HB 3371, it provides a useful starting point for discussion. The bill would allow people 21 and older to grow up to six marijuana plants, and to possess up to 24 ounces of the drug. (If those numbers sound familiar, it's because they're the same limits prescribed by Oregon's medical marijuana law, adopted by a statewide vote in 1998.) A commercial marijuana industry would be monitored and taxed by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, at a rate of $35 per ounce of marijuana, and revenues from taxing legal pot would be designated to help fund schools, Oregon State Police, drug addiction and mental health services, and the state's general fund.
It's an interesting proposal that merits consideration. Meanwhile, lawmakers should be watching to see what happens in Washington, D.C., where Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently met with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Justice Department officials about their states' new legalization laws. They wanted to know what, if anything, federal officials intend to do to enforce federal laws on controlled substances. Any decisions on federal enforcement could affect the status of marijuana laws not just in those states, but in the 18 states, including Oregon, that have made medical marijuana legal.
Kotek's instincts are on the mark.Better to talk - and watch - now, and wait until the haze clears before proceeding further down the road toward legalization.