For decades, Oregon resisted hosting an annual legislative session. It was one of the final states to finally concede that leadership requires at least a meeting of its lawmakers every year, and in 2012, installed an annual session. But even now, its new concession barely seems to qualify as an annual legislature; during even-numbered years, it only meets for a month-long session.
This half-hearted attempt to become a full-time legislature fully fails to provide the leadership and consistency necessary to manage a state as politically and socially diverse as Oregon—a reality that is becoming especially clear after its recent month-long session in February, and current long-term absence until next January.
Exhibit A: The civil wars breaking out in towns and counties throughout Oregon over the conflicting laws about medical marijuana dispensaries.
In the regular 2013 session, the state legislature voted to allow medical marijuana dispensaries to operate within Oregon—a reasonable consideration given that 15 years ago voters in the state approved the use of marijuana for predetermined ailments, like cancer and chronic pain. SInce 1998, under the voter approved law, patients with pre-approved aliments have been allowed to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana, strictly for medicinal purposes. That law, however, was incomplete, essentially approving the demand-side for medical marijuana, but leaving the legality of the supply-side vaguely defined. The Oregon state legislature's action in 2013 allowing medical dispensaries took a step toward logic and clarity: As long as medical marijuana is legal, approved both by the majority of voters and the legislature, there should be public and regulated businesses that can provide safe and monitored transactions.
But then, in February, in its single-month "annual" session, those very same people, the state legislators, hurriedly ratcheted back their own allowances by voting for a senate bill permitting local municipalities to ban such dispensaries until 2015. It was a patch-up job, something meant to hold the matter in place until law makers reconvene in January.
In practice, however, that decision has been like lighting a fuse on a bomb and then walking out of the room. It has made a mess, and one that there is no higher authority to clean up.
The battles are hottest in southern Oregon, where cities like Medford have issued permanent bans against dispensaries, with one city councilor there boldly declaring, "We have the authority to have a moratorium regardless of the state action"—a statement bordering on anarchy. It is even worse in Phoenix, a small town of 5,000, midpoint between Medford and Ashland, where it wouldn't be completely surprising if townfolks show up to this week's city council meeting with pitchforks and torches. At the heart of the debate in Phoenix is a dispensary called the Greenery. Over the past few years, city council there has routinely fined the Greenery for operating without a license; and, just as fast, a circuit court has dismissed the charges (32 times!). With the legal ambiguity created by the state legislature, the Phoenix city council has taken the opportunity to up its prosecution of the Greenery, so much so that at the last city council meeting, 24 people came out to speak on behalf of the dispensary—and medical marijuana in general. Yet, in response, the city council eliminated future public testimony on the topic and, this week, votes on whether to increase the fine for operating a dispensary from $100 a day, to $500. It also apparently has earmarked $50,000 for legal fees to prosecute the owner of the Greenery—a ginormous sum for a small town.
In Central Oregon, the climate is also primed for such civil wars: There are already faultlines showing, as Bend allows dispensaries, but Deschutes County does not.
Without a full-time legislature, Oregon will remain ruled by a wild west mentality, where various cities and small towns like Phoenix don't pay heed to the prevailing laws and sentiments.