According to the political insiders, observers and wonks, there is every indication that Measure 91, Oregon's voter initiative to legalize marijuana, will pass. The number of organizations lining up to endorse the bill is as long as it is varied: The City Club of Portland, The Oregon State Council for Retired Citizens and the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. Even the Oregonian, an increasingly conservative voice, printed a lengthy editorial endorsing the measure and calling marijuana "an intoxicant that should not have been prohibited in the first place" and went on, point by point, to dismiss concerns about its legalizations, including the most persuasive, that legalizing marijuana will give more access to minors, saying, "There is no movement to ban alcohol in order to keep it away from kids, so why use that justification to prevent the legalization of marijuana, which in many ways is no worse?"
Rarely has there been such wide-spread support for such a controversial ballot measure and, what's more, the political action committee spearheading the effort to legalize marijuana has amassed a $3 million budget, and is already rolling out a sensible TV ad campaign.
Moreover, the organized opposition—as thin as it is—has waited until the fourth quarter of the campaign season to take the field, only registering a No on 91 campaign with the Secretary of State in mid-August and with only whispers of support from various sheriff and district attorney associations.
Yet in spite of all of this, surprisingly, the measure to legalize pot is only leading voter polls by just a hair.
Could it fail?
WHERE'S THE OPPOSITION?
According to an oft-cited but rarely specified poll, eight out of 10 Oregonians believe that legalizing pot is a matter of not if, but when. More accurate probably is the August KATU/Survey USA poll reporting that 51 percent of likely voters currently plan to vote for Measure 91, compared to 42 percent planning to vote against—a race that is surprisingly tight considering that there is little organized opposition to Measure 91.
Certainly there are pockets of resistance, like members of the city council in Medford, who have passed resolutions to ban marijuana from its city for eternity. In the nearby small southern Oregon town of Gold Hill, two weeks ago residents pushed for a recall of four city council members after they approved a medical marijuana dispensary in that town; the recall effort failed, but 40 percent of the town voted to expel the councilmembers.
Yet, in spite of nearly half of the voting population opposed to Measure 91, there seems to be little organized opposition, an oddity for such a high-profile initiative and certainly for one that inspires such great passions.
Until mid-August, there wasn't even a political organization registered with the State of Oregon to oppose Measure 91 and, even now, that organization is, at best, more an idea than reality. An effort to contact No on 91 was like chasing a ghost. There is no website for the PAC and the only contact information available was obtained by pulling the records with the Secretary of State. Even then, emails to No on 91 went unanswered. One of the few leads to connect with the organization is an 800-number for C&A Consulting. That number is also connected to Carol Russell, a Bandon resident listed as the treasurer, and Angelique Conley, a Klamath Falls resident listed as the "correspondence recipient;" presumably the C and the A who are consulting.
There is little available information on Conley, but Russell's biggest accomplishment as a political consultant seems to be serving as the treasurer for the PAC "Stop the Measure 50 Tax Hike," an organization that accepted several million dollars from tobacco companies to defeat a 2007 statewide bill in Oregon to increase cigarette taxes—hardly an accomplishment that lends the moral high ground for an organization that is trotting out the argument that legalizing marijuana will increase access for the drug to minors.
When called, the hold music for C&A Consulting played a plucky Dave Brubeck tune as I held on the line for several minutes before a voice as raspy as one of Marge Simpson's sisters answered the phone. Russell informed me that she was "just the treasurer" and couldn't answer any questions about the campaign, but forwarded questions to Darrell Fuller, who she said is managing the campaign, although that name does not appear on the information filed with the State of Oregon. (Instead, the No on 91 director is listed as Salem resident Jason Myers, the Marion County sheriff.)
For his part, Fuller, apparently the de facto director for the No on 91 campaign, is what political insiders would more call a workhorse than a powerhouse. Originally from Klamath Falls, Fuller spent what seems to be four rather unremarkable years at Willamette University before immediately taking on his ongoing 25-year-career as a lobbyist. Currently serving as the General Manager for the Oregon State Sheriff's Association (OSSA), Fuller also lists his employment as a lobbyist for an alphabet soup of organizations, including the OSSA, NATA (NW Automotive Trade Association), ORPHCC (Oregon State Association of Plumbing Heating Cooling) and OSBC (Oregon State Bridge Construction). Fuller's most steadfast employment seems to have been a decade with the Oregon Independent Auto Dealers' Association, first as Regulatory Affairs Director and then, for 11 months, according to his LinkedIn profile, as the Executive Director, before apparently branching off as an independent contract lobbyist. At OIAA, he has listed his biggest accomplishment as increasing a campaign budget from $80,000 to $300,000.
Fuller failed to respond to requests for an interview, and thus far, the No on 91 campaign has listed no campaign contributions.
Yet, in spite of the lackluster opposition, the campaign seems to be relying on entrenched opinions about marijuana—and, according to polls, that non-strategy seems to be working.
ACE IN THE HOLE?
But a current lack of organized opposition in Oregon does not mean that a campaign to defeat Measure 91 isn't brewing.
In late September and early October, an anti-drug campaign is scheduled to roll throughout the state of Oregon. That campaign is apparently run by Kevin Sabet, a former advisor for presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, and who salon.com called "the quarterback of the new anti-drug movement." After the successful ballot measures to legalize marijuana in Washington and Colorado, Sabet helped launch Smarter Approaches to Marijuana, and another group called Grass Is Not Greener to combat state initiatives. Their latest anti-marijuana campaign is scheduled to start in early October, at the height of the campaign season.
However, that ace in the hole may have been trumped even before the opposition played its card. Funded by federal grants, the campaign has moved into a gray area where public money cannot be spent for active political campaigns and, last Friday, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) sent a letter to the White House, throwing a penalty flag and calling for a federal investigation into the so-called Oregon Marijuana Education Tour that is sponsoring ads in newspapers and speakers like Sabet to tour Oregon.
"The bias of the speakers selected, the overall one-sided focus of the events, and the proximity between these events and the upcoming election are cause for concern," Blumenauer wrote.
In response, Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, an outspoken opponent to legalizing marijuana, told the Associated Press that Blumenauer "is trying to bully people into not talking about marijuana." He added, "They are so afraid of any conversation they are willing to essentially make the allegations in Congressman Blumenauer's letter."
Rep. Blumenauer coolly responded that Marquis must have forgotten that the two men are scheduled to debate Measure 91 this week at a Salem City Club luncheon.
FEAR AND IGNORANCE
The smell at Bloom Well, a medical marijuana dispensary near Bend's northeast Hwy 97 exchange, is as powerful as stepping into a flower shop. Yet, the front room looks as sterile and friendly as an orthodontic office; a vinyl orange sofa is pushed against one wall, and two green chairs saddle up to a table. There is a receptionist's desk encased behind a sliding plexiglass window. Alongside the intake area is a white board. "Are you registered to vote," the board asks in purple marker. "Do it!," it answers in orange.
"In our culture a lot of folks are plagued with fear, and people don't like change," explains Jeremy Kwit, who founded Bloom Well more than a year ago. A graduate from Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern College, Kwit is calm and well spoken.
Not surprisingly, he supports Measure 91, and ticks through reasons to pass the initiative, from increasing tax revenue to creating more accountability. He says it cuts across political sensibilities. "For about every 'ism, there is an argument to pass (Measure) 91," he says, pausing before adding, "except fear and ignorance."
Kwit is fine featured with light freckles; curly brown ringlets fall onto his forehead. Two weeks ago, he hosted an event with the proponents for Measure 91 at Deschutes Brewery; an opportunity, he said, for questions and answers, and to explain what the measure means. "Even some folks who support medical marijuana," he says, "are unconfortable with the change."
And it seems like that uncertainty is creating Measure 91's biggest hurdle—namely, inertia. Although pioneers in legalizing medical marijuana, Oregon voters have since shown they have limits to their endorsement of marijuana. Six years after first passing a medical marijuana bill in 1998, voters in the state soundly defeated a bill to allow dispensaries—and, since then, haven't budged much in their opinions. A similar bill was defeated 56 to 44 percent in 2010, and a measure to completely legalize recreational use just two years ago failed 54 to 46. But since that time, two states have notoriously legalized marijuana for recreational use.
"What Colorado and Washington have done to change the conversation at a national level has allowed anyone to talk about cannabis freely," explains Kwit, pointing out stories in national newspapers and TV news that report on the economic benefits. "That national conversation has shifted the language used to (people) talking about cannabis being taxed and regulated."
But whether that conversation has changed enough, Kwit recognizes is the pivotal question to the upcoming election.
"Loosely speaking, 45 percent of the voting population is for legalizing and taxation, and 45 percent are set on opposing it, no matter what. We have this 10 percent that can be swayed with education and information and science, and that's where the campaign should be focused."