Oregon Legislature Hates Potheads More Than It Respects Democracy

06/15/2015 03:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

This last election, a group of activists calling themselves New Approach Oregon wrote an initiative called Measure 91. Following the dictates of the Oregon Constitution, they got state approval for their marijuana legalization language, collected enough signatures, placed it on the ballot, and won with 56 percent of the statewide vote. Oregon passed marijuana legalization with the greatest level of support of any of the four states that have legalized so far.

But this weekend it was announced that the legislature will radically alter that statewide legalization in such a way that half the state of Oregon will still prohibit marijuana.

When Measure 91 passed in Oregon, it generally carried the populous areas of the state, like Portland and Eugene, while the vast, sparsely-populated counties on the east side of the Cascade Mountains rejected Measure 91. And those counties really, really hate potheads. East of the mountains might as well be the state of West Idaho.

So the Republican Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, who represents those vast underpopulated eastern counties, held his breath until he turned blue and swore that no way, no how, would anything get done on writing the regulations for newly-legal marijuana unless the eastern counties are allowed to ban all commercial marijuana. No commercial grows, no commercial processing, and most important, no retail marijuana outlets.

Ferrioli has the backing of two powerful lobbyists, Scott Winkels and Rob Bovett, who represent the League of Oregon Cities and the Association of Oregon Counties, respectively. They threaten that the courts will never endorse any law that allows the state to force a city or county to accept a federally-banned substance. Never mind the irony that guys arguing for the localities' right to ignore a state law are basing it on localities minding a federal law; they threaten to litigate commercial marijuana all the way to the Supreme Court and have it invalidated in all of Oregon if they don't get their way.

So the Oregon Legislature, with a Democratic majority in both houses and the backing of over 850,000 Oregon voters, has caved in to the threats of one Republican and two lobbyists and announced a compromise. Any county that voted against Measure 91 with more than 55 percent of the vote will be allowed to ban marijuana commerce. That makes up almost all the counties east of the Cascade Mountains, effectively dividing the state into the eastern half that doesn't have to follow the new law and the western half that does.

Measure 91's authors anticipated that rural areas might not be keen on pot shops in their towns. The law as passed allowed any city or county to enact a ban on marijuana commerce. But that ban had to be enacted by a majority vote of the people. Not good enough, said Ferrioli, Winkels, and Bovett. They insisted that the bans be decided by a handful of city councilors or county commissioners, and the Oregon Legislature has agreed that the people's votes aren't to be trusted over the opinions of a few people on a glorified home owners' association.

Those Eastern Oregon counties that cut themselves off from marijuana commerce, however, still get a piece of the marijuana commerce tax revenue pie. Measure 91 as passed had a tax revenue system that ensured if localities banned pot commerce, they got no pot tax revenue. Instead, the legislature has instituted a 3 percent sales tax for localities that allow commerce and a 17 percent state sales tax that will feed the General Fund that is disbursed to all counties. So Western Oregon pot smokers will be paying taxes in legal pot shops that benefit Eastern Oregon counties that ban pot shops.

Measure 91 also said, three times, that medical marijuana was not to be altered in any way. So the legislature immediately began altering and restricting medical marijuana during the time they'd been allotted to work out recreational marijuana regulations. Not only have medical marijuana growers suffered severe cutbacks in the amount of cannabis they could produce, but now they are burdened by monthly reporting requirements, two-year record keeping, and inspections from the state, even if they are just growing medical marijuana for a family member.

And it will be those growers the sick and disabled medical marijuana patients in Eastern Oregon will be relying on, since medical marijuana dispensaries are also included in this compromise. In those counties that voted over 55 percent against recreational marijuana, the city councils and county commissions can ban medical dispensaries as well.

What is the point of having a statewide vote if it doesn't apply statewide? Is Jeff Merkeley no longer A US senator for Eastern Oregon, since they voted for Monica Webhy? Does Oregon's Equal Rights Amendment that passed last election not apply in Eastern Oregon, since they voted against it? Or is it only marijuana legalization that makes Oregon's Legislature dismiss the will of the people so easily?