Oregon Legislature dives into marijuana debate

SALEM, Ore. — Oregon lawmakers are beginning to debate whether they should ask voters to weigh in next year on legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

State Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee, unveiled a draft of a bill on Friday that would ask voters in the 2014 election whether marijuana should be legal. If it passes, the 2015 Legislature would be charged with writing laws to regulate the manufacture, sale and use of the drug.

Democratic Sen. Floyd Prozanksi of Eugene says a legalization vote is inevitable, and the Legislature would write more well-rounded rules than activists drafting their own initiatives. Legalization advocates in Oregon have proposed several competing ballot measures of their own.

“It is here, we need deal with it,” Prozanski said. “Because if we don’t deal with it, it’s going to be given to us, and I think we’ll have a lot of unintended consequences.”

Prozanski convened a Judiciary Committee hearing Friday to consider the issue before lawmakers begin a six-week special session in February. Because time is short during the legislative session, Prozanski proposed delaying a complicated conversation about how to regulate and tax the drug until lawmakers have more time to work through it in 2015.

Anthony Johnson of New Approach Oregon, which is considering collecting signatures for a legalization initiative, said it was too soon to say whether Prozanski’s proposal would satisfy his organization. The group is backed by some of the deep-pocketed interests that funded legalization efforts last year in Washington and Colorado, the only two states that have created legal markets for the drug.

People involved with creating regulations in Washington and Colorado told Oregon lawmakers that state officials are facing serious challenges, many of them unexpected, as they try to set up marijuana regulations.

“It has not been an easy road, and since the passage of 502, I’m not as optimistic as I once was that Washington did get it right,” said Hilary Bricken, a Seattle lawyer who advises companies in the marijuana business. I-502 was the Washington initiative that legalized marijuana in 2012.

Washington has struggled, for example, to balance the 25 percent excise tax required in the law with a need for legal marijuana to compete with black-market sales of the drug, she said. Oregon has the benefit of seeing guidance issued earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Justice about legalized marijuana.

Even in Washington and Colorado, marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The federal government said it won’t interfere with marijuana operations that meet eight standards, including strict prohibitions on sales to minors and effective enforcement of state laws.

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