30 Sep

Oregon’s Dope Day points the way for a line of states

State Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, was sure of only one thing: “There will be lines.”

But people are likely to be mellow about it.

When recreational marijuana becomes legal in Oregon tomorrow, Burdick, co-chair of the special legislative committee that drew up the rules, will be an interested observer – although not on line herself. Her prediction is based on the first-day experiences of Washington and Colorado, the states that last year sent up the nation’s first legal smoke signals.

On those states’ first Dope Days, urban sales outlets had waiting lines like Portland brunch places – which, as part of this process, could also end up with longer lines.

Of course, as Burdick points out, Washington and Colorado had some early supply issues. Whatever problems Oregon might have during the transition, we seem unlikely to run low on supply.

Marijuana, after all, is the great cash crop of large parts of Oregon, and the state’s medical marijuana system has already encouraged home growing to the point where marijuana plants might at any moment qualify as state fair entries.

Small-scale recreational growth and use became legal July 1. With Oregon already, four decades ago, being the first state to decriminalize possession, making it less than a misdemeanor, it’s hard to think that Oregon’s previous legal regimen significantly curtailed consumption around here.

Unlike in Colorado, Oregon won’t be selling marijuana in edible forms, despite our rising national reputation for creative cooking.

Still, tomorrow, just under a year since Oregonians voted for legalization in the 2014 election, the rules will change. Oregonians will legally be able to buy small amounts of recreational marijuana from the state’s sprouting numbers of medical marijuana dispensaries, where the waiting lines might be expected. The change won’t immediately increase the number of outlets, but it will simplify the process.

Oct. 1, 2015: The day Oregonians will be freed from having to claim their back hurts.

The state is still working on the process for licensing its own retail marijuana outlets, which won’t come into effect until sometime next year. That might be the more dramatic change, although the state’s record at selling medical insurance might not be very encouraging. We should be especially careful of any state musical TV spots for marijuana.
It’s also not clear how the state will do in changing brand loyalty among heavy consumers. (The great bulk of Oregon’s lottery revenue comes from a relatively small part of the population, and marijuana income might well follow the same pattern.) Many of them already have their own, um, retail suppliers. In Seattle, it’s reported that most longtime consumers have remained with their traditional tax-free suppliers, which may not be very civic-minded but does cut down on paperwork.

Oregon will be taxing at a lower, less discouraging level than Washington, setting up another issue. As the Brookings Institute, the D.C. think tank, pointed out, Oregon is the first state to legalize marijuana that borders another state that’s legalized marijuana, setting up striking state possibilities. A lower tax rate in Oregon could stimulate interstate trade, as Oregonians continue to head to Washington to buy fireworks while Washingtonians come to Oregon to buy a different kind of fireworks.

The state government is still working to figure this out, and the legislative committee will meet today to try to roll out the last few ounces. But this time, unlike the long-ago deregulation, it does seem like Oregon is at the front of a national wave, and might actually get to show the country how to do it.

Legalization is up next in California and Ohio, and Florida is looking at medical marijuana, which considering Florida’s medical consumption could blow the national supply right there. The federal government still bans marijuana, but the Justice Department has officially lost interest, and even the Republican candidates for president haven’t shown much interest in taking it on again. So far, only New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has vowed to go after the legalizing states, and if all Oregon has to fear is a Christie administration, the whole state might as well light up.

Former Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., recently said that he always knew that after one state achieved gay marriage, the whole country would follow. Marijuana legalization won’t be an exact parallel – whatever happens in the states, the Supreme Court is unlikely to discover a constitutional right to toke – but as with gay marriage, liberalization achieved without social collapse is likely to spread.

We don’t know how long it’s likely to take.

But you could imagine states getting in line.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 9/30/15.

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