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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Oregon Voters To Consider Legalizing Recreational Marijuana

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network

Oregonians will decide this fall whether to legalize recreational marijuana. Measure 91 would allow adults in Oregon to grow, possess, and sell marijuana under state regulation.

In 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. But Oregon voters rejected a marijuana legalization measure two years ago.

Backers of this effort said the new measure is written to address concerns raised by opponents the first time around over regulation issues.

A new era for marijuana?

Legal issues might make some people think twice about speaking to a reporter about their marijuana use. But pot activists clearly see a new era on the horizon.

Portlander Russ Belville hosts a daily online marijuana talk show. He compared the growing acceptance of marijuana to the growing acceptance of gay marriage.

"We've been forced to be in a smoky closet, if you will, hiding who we are,” Belville said. “And now, as more and more people have become medical marijuana patients, or up front recreational users, there's less stigma. There's less fear of the unknown.”

Belville said it's a far cry from when he first started advocating for marijuana legalization back in the ‘80s.

"There was nowhere to talk about this,” he said. “And if you broached the question you were suspected of being a criminal. 'Oh, you're interested in the marijuana question. Why is that, hmmm?' And you were inviting scrutiny into your own personal habits."

Belville and other Measure 91 supporters say marijuana should be taxed and regulated in much the same way as alcohol is in Oregon. They say it would bring in millions of dollars in new revenue to the state and provide oversight to a product that is widely used already.

Oregon would join Washington and Colorado in legalizing pot if the initiative passes. Supporters say there's a groundswell nationally to ease laws on marijuana and that it's only a matter of time.

For now, though, without a medical reason, it's still a crime to light up. So when I asked Belville what I had seen him enjoying on the sidewalk before our interview, he said, ”I'm afraid the 5th Amendment applies in this case, thanks."

Another person I spoke to freely admitted to smoking weed. Just not recently.

'Not entirely benign or without risk'

Josh Marquis is the district attorney of Clatsop County, Oregon. He's long been one of the state's leading voices against recreational marijuana use. And he says he used marijuana back in his college days.

"What I remember is within about 20 seconds of taking a hit, I felt it right then and there,” Marquis said. “It's not like taking a couple beers or a couple glasses of wine and feeling slightly relaxed. You are immediately in a fairly…you can tell when you're stoned."

Marquis said the legalization crowd is understating the risks of using marijuana. And he added Measure 91 in particular is way too cavalier. For instance, if the initiative passes adults could have up to a half-pound of marijuana at home.

"That is a lot of marijuana,” Marquis noted.

In fact it's eight times as much as the law allows in Washington. And it would remain illegal under federal law even if the measure passes. Marquis said he's also concerned about the potential for many more drivers to hit the road under the influence of marijuana. That's something he already sees as a prosecutor.

"Is it a big a deal as using heroin or Oxycodone or something like that? No, it's not,” Marquis said. “But it's not entirely benign or without risk."