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Leaders prepare for legal pot on Oregon ballot

Measure will go before voters in November
Marijuana plants

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - In the months before a marijuana legalization measure goes before voters, the leadership of Oregon's largest agencies quietly convened high-level meetings to discuss how to deal with it.

The legalization measure would touch every corner of state government, from the Oregon State Police, who would no longer make minor marijuana arrests, to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which would administer the program.

"They're trying to not get caught flat-footed," said OLCC spokeswoman Christie Scott.

The agencies in attendance were the liquor control commission, the state police, the departments of agriculture, revenue, transportation and justice, and the Oregon Health Authority.

Preparation for the legalization measure, which would tax and regulate commercial recreational marijuana, also included state officials who spoke to their counterparts in legal marijuana states, Colorado and Washington state.

They sought to learn lessons from the mistakes of those two states. "Thank goodness Colorado and Washington went first," said OLCC chairman Rob Patridge. "But we're different. We're way different."

Colorado, like Oregon, has commercial medical dispensaries, which provided an infrastructure for the fledgling commercial recreational business. Washington, by contrast, had to build a system from scratch, a long and tortuous process that has crashed the initial exuberance of legalization with the reality of a grinding bureaucratic slog.

Patridge and Scott said the meetings were necessary - if the measure passes, there's a short timeline between the vote in November and the January 1 kickoff of legalization. Patridge said he also expects a number of questions when the Legislature convenes on Feb. 2.

The "Yes on 91" campaign and its petitioning group New Approach Oregon raised at least $2.3 million when they were last required to report their fundraising in late August. The opposition did not report a single contribution or dollar spent by the August deadline.

Marion County Sheriff Jason Myers, the petitioner of the opposition campaign, did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

The pro-legalization campaign will spend the money on get-out-the-vote efforts in Oregon, which operates a ballot system conducted entirely by mail, and has reserved $2 million in television advertising space before the general election.

Throughout the state, however, no campaign is yet visible: No television or radio spots, no flyers on light poles and no pamphlets in the mail.

The OLCC estimates that the measure will generate between $17 million and $40 million in tax revenue. Forty percent of that money would go to schools and 20 percent would go to alcohol, drug and mental health services. The remaining dollars would be split among the state police and municipal and county law enforcement.

Proponents argue the measure would redirect needed police attention from minor, non-violent drug crimes to more pressing issues.

"The current approach fuels drug cartel violence, fails to protect children and distracts police at a time when there are unsolved murders and untested rape kits," said New Approach Oregon spokesman Peter Zuckerman in an email. "Measure 91 will end decades of failed policy."

The measure would permit possession of up to a half-pound of pot.

Oregon decriminalized marijuana in 1973 and legalized medical marijuana in 1998, and early polling shows the commercial legalization measure holding a significant lead. But opponents of commercial legalization, mostly law enforcement and the state's district attorneys, argue that full legalization is unnecessary.

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis said there are fewer than 100 people in prison in Oregon on marijuana-related crimes. He argues that a legal market will immediately make marijuana easier for children to access, and will increase the number of intoxicated drivers.

"The most disturbing thing is the argument that marijuana has absolutely no downside," Marquis said at a debate this month. "Why would we want to introduce another drug?"