For those of us who have spent years in the trenches of marijuana policy reform, it has been a rare sight to see elected leaders actually lead. It has been the voting public who have paved the way.
But there is a glimmer of hope in Oregon.
In the four states, and the District of Columbia, that have legalized marijuana in the face of federal prohibition, those courageous and innovative steps were taken by the voters, not the elected officials in those jurisdictions.
In fact, not only were most elected officials unwilling to seriously consider enacting legalization legislatively, most also publicly opposed the proposals and urged their defeat at the polls. Fortunately the voters led the way, and left their “leaders” to follow.
So we are accustomed to the challenge of moving progressive marijuana legislation forward despite the active opposition of most politicians. It means we mostly focus on those states that offer a voter initiative as a way to change public policy by going around the legislature. And it sometimes results in constitutional amendments being proposed, despite higher approval requirements in some states, to protect against the possibility that the legislature might simply ignore the will of the voters and reverse a legalization initiative by a vote of the out-of-touch legislators still holding on to their war-on-marijuana mentality.
But there are some new signs that this overwhelming opposition of elected officials to marijuana legalization may be coming to an end, at least in some states, and that some elected officials are now deciding to embrace these new changes and to take steps to implement them in a common-sense manner, to serve the public interest.
I am referring specifically to the recent decision of the Oregon legislature to begin offering legal recreational marijuana sales a year earlier than had been expected. They had no legal requirement to make this change, but they decided to accept the will of the voters and to implement the new law sooner rather than later. They acted like leaders, rather than sore losers.
SB 460 Approved by Legislature, Signed by Governor
Measure 91, the legalization initiative that was approved by 56 percent of Oregon voters in November of 2014, would have been implemented in two-steps. First, as of July 1, 2015, it became legal for those 21 and above to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, to possess up to 8 ounces in the home, and to privately cultivate up to four plants. But provisions in the initiative that gave the Oregon Liquor Control Commission the authority to begin issuing licenses for commercial growers and sellers, delayed this process until January 4, 2016, and legal dispensaries were not expected to be operational until October of 2016.
The result, like the current situation in the District of Columbia, is that recreational marijuana is now legal in Oregon, but there is no legal market. But unlike the District, where the City Council has been hamstrung by Congress in their efforts to establish licensed growers and sellers, the Oregon legislature decided to fix the problem with a short-term solution – they enacted emergency legislation allowing the existing 300-plus licensed medical marijuana dispensaries, which are regulated by the Oregon Health Authority, to begin selling to adult recreational smokers on October 1, 2015.
Recreational consumers will also be able to purchase marijuana seeds and up to four non-flowering plants. (In a nod to local control, counties that opposed Measure 91 with at least 55 percent of the vote, all located on the east side of the state, were given the right to ban recreational sales during this interim program.)
That’s right! The legislature enacted, and Gov. Kate Brown promptly signed, SB 460, bringing full legalization to Oregon a full year ahead of schedule. For once, instead of trying to undermine the new law, they have embraced it and elected to try to make it work as intended by the voters.
Gov. Brown’s office called the measure “a smart solution to a short-term logistical problem,” adding, “If marijuana is legal to use, it shouldn’t be illegal to buy.”
The new law will permit recreational users to purchase up to one-quarter of an ounce of marijuana per transaction from any of the licensed medical dispensaries. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission will continue forward with the process of issuing recreational licenses after the first of the year, and when those new recreational dispensaries are up and running, consumers will be permitted to purchase up to one ounce of marijuana per transaction.
A Model for Elected Officials Moving Forward
One admirable, common sense step by one state legislature does not make a trend, but it does establish a powerful example of how elected officials can get ahead of the curve and work cooperatively to implement these new laws, without delay, and one that can be the model for elected officials in the states that are expected to adopt legalization in the coming months.
A majority of the voters nationwide now support full legalization, and that support appears to be growing. They understand that prohibition is a failed public policy and legalization with regulation is a better option for everyone, smokers and non-smokers alike. When voters clearly register their approval for marijuana legalization, it’s time for the politicians to acknowledge that change, embrace it, and take steps to implement the new laws in a timely and responsible manner. It is time to lead, for a change.
This column first appeared @ marijuana.com.