22 Jul

Legalized marijuana in Washington will send Oregon a smoke signal

Rolling over the Interstate Bridge into Legalization Land a few days ago, you could immediately sense a difference long before catching a whiff of anything in the air.

The rotating illuminated signs on Interstate-5, the ones that typically welcomed you to the Evergreen State, now declared “Drive High/Get a DUI.”

Maybe it’s not the most effusive greeting, but it does promise personal attention.

Coming back the other way across the bridge last week, you could see the approach of an Oregon marijuana legalization initiative, although we haven’t yet noted it on our highway signs. Maybe something like, “Welcome to Oregon, and just hold your breath for a few months.”

Between now and November, developments on both sides of the river will run together, in a kind of Columbia River Crossover.

Oregon doesn’t typically pick up much from Washington; if we did, we’d have a stronger state university system. But watching how four months of legalization works across the river could have a considerable effect on what happens with the Oregon marijuana measure this fall.

No doubt the five Oregonians reportedly first in line when the Vancouver marijuana shop opened this month were just trying to get a head start on filling in their mail ballot.

Colorado has already been operating its legalization system for six months, and has produced some lessons, such as how much of a marijuana-infused candy bar you should eat at one time. (Spoiler alert: not all of it.) Last week, Washington’s Liquor Control Board ruled that state marijuana stores could not sell cannabis candy, although they could sell cookies and brownies.

Oregon, of course, has always had a sizable bloc of chocolate-priority voters.

Colorado’s Department of Revenue, in a recent report on “Market Size and Demand for Marijuana in Colorado,” found that a disproportionate share of buyers were tourists – with legalization possibly stimulating the tourist business – but that was enough to provide significant tax revenue.

The same pattern appears to apply in Washington, whose situation will be more closely noticed in Oregon. Although Washington took in $150,000 in marijuana taxes in the first three days, and the Washington Office of Fiscal Management projects $1.9 billion in revenue in the first five years, the long-thriving underground market seems poised to continue to flourish, especially in Seattle.

Current dealers still retain an advantage in price and in established customer relations, and supply doesn’t seem to be a problem; last month a Seattle bust brought in a record 2,663 plants. Jake Ellison recently wrote on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer web site that the new state stores would have no effect on the current market in Seattle, especially since the penalties for buying from private dealers have now virtually vanished.

That still leaves the question spelled out in high-powered lights on Interstate-5: In the new world, how many drivers sharing the road with you at night are going to be higher than the cab of an 18-wheeler, and how will anybody know?

Last week, two retired Multnomah County prosecutors, Norm Frink and Mark McDonnell, came out against the proposed Oregon marijuana initiative, partly because of a lack of standards for impaired driving. (As Noelle Crombie reported in The Oregonian, Frink and MacDonnell want a warrantless blood test for drivers, which might have some trouble itself with Oregon voters.) They say that Washington’s system for dealing with marijuana-impaired drivers works better, but just how many people are picked up in Washington this fall for driving not only above the speed limit but also above the clouds is still a number likely to be noticed on this side of the river.

Possibly, the momentum for marijuana legalization in Oregon is already irresistible, and nothing short of the entire state of Washington lying on the couch, smiling vaguely and eating Twinkies could raise questions about Oregon’s direction. Ten years from now, it’s been speculated, Oregon will have a craft cannabis industry the way it now has a craft beer industry, and people might not want to get in the way of a nature-based job creator with a non-GMO product.

But throughout August, September and October, the pattern of how legalization works across the river will play a role in how the debate develops here. The system that just went into operation there may be different from the one created in the Oregon initiative, but our neighbor to the north will send us a message about how things could work.

From now until the end of the World Series, Washington will be sending us a smoke signal.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian 7/20/14.

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