Mercury Staff

IF LAST FALL'S failure of Measure 80—Oregon's cannabis tax act—has dampened the spirits of the state's pro-marijuana lobbyists and advocates, they're hiding it well. If anything, the ill-designed measure's demise, alongside legalization victories in Washington State and Colorado, has only revved the engine of support across the state.

But a major question looms. Faced with an off-year election in 2014 (meaning lower turnout) and an empty bank account, campaigners must decide something that could make or break the future of legalization: When's the right time to try again?

According to Steve Fox, the architect of Colorado's successful legalization campaign and a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the nation's largest marijuana policy reform, Oregon should probably wait.

Until 2016—the next presidential election year.

"Timing is key," Fox told local supporters on Sunday, January 27, at a town hall meeting in Portland. "If you do a ballot initiative related to marijuana on a presidential election-year ballot, as opposed to a mid-term election, the difference is stark. So if Oregon wants to make a slam dunk, it's going to have to be in 2016."

Fox said Colorado's pro-pot advocates started taking strategic steps toward the 2012 election as far back as 2005. To achieve a similar victory in Oregon, Fox stressed, lobbyists must follow a similarly strict regimen. Or else.

"If you choose to run a campaign in 2014," Fox said, "know that MPP won't make you a financial priority."

The group raised more than $500,000 for the Colorado campaign last year, while Oregon's leading pro-pot campaign raised a mere $60,000—with no real national money.

"We want to put our efforts towards states that put the time and effort into it," Fox added.

It's a compelling argument by someone who, last fall, did something no marijuana advocate in Oregon has accomplished in years: persuaded voters to back a pot measure. And it should resonate, given the flaws in Measure 80.

In both Colorado and Washington State, major lawyers, doctors, clergy members, and city leaders spoke out in support of the initiatives. Oregon, on the other hand, mostly had Willie Nelson.

Another of the Oregon measure's major flaws, according to advocates, was the lack of consistency and cooperation between the two groups campaigning for it.

"We have to work together if we want to get anywhere," said Tim Johnson, a local hemp store owner and co-author of a potential draft for a future measure. "Now's the time to find the loopholes in our past work and take it seriously."

This commitment to consistency fueled Colorado's campaign. From slowly pushing the "marijuana is safer than alcohol" message, through smart advertising, and then gaining the support of respected authority figures by working the public safety angle, MPP's work in Colorado finally paid off. Amendment 64 won with a 53.3 percent majority.

In Washington State, the Initiative 502 campaign carefully tailored its appeal. The initiative would allow adults to possess marijuana through the state liquor board, but forbids home growing and requires a DUI standard designed to be comparable to the 0.08 percent limit for blood-alcohol content. The initiative took nearly 56 percent of the vote.

But even with the advice and warning from leaders of successful campaigns—and the promise of national cash—many Oregonians who support legalization remain convinced the political climate is begging for a speedier campaign.

"Sure, 2016 is a slam dunk, but can't 2014 be a layup?" Russ Belville, a local talk radio host, asked at Sunday's meeting.

The town hall also drew US Representative Earl Blumenauer, a longtime supporter of marijuana legalization and hemp farming. Blumenauer argued for the federal government to drop the "Schedule One" label on marijuana (the same given to MDMA and heroin), and completely reevaluate the "hazards" of the substance. But, he also echoed Fox's warning to the crowd.

"This is a time of tremendous change, both at the federal level and at the state level," he said. "So it's more important than ever that Oregon gets its act together."