Illustration by Dave Neeson

A PLAN TO CREATE a statewide system of medical marijuana dispensaries will appear on the ballot this November—without the endorsement of Oregon's largest marijuana advocacy group.

Portland-based Oregon NORML is not taking a stand on Initiative 28, which qualified for the ballot on Friday, July 16. This lack of support highlights a rift within the pro-marijuana community between groups who support across-the-board legalization and those who want to set up private licensed dispensaries to sell pot to medical patients.

Since Oregon voters approved the use of medical marijuana in 1998, the number of marijuana cardholders has grown to 36,380. But it's still illegal to buy or sell pot in the state. Pro-pot groups Voter Power and Oregon Green Free paid around $100,000 to signature gatherers on the campaign for Initiative 28, which would change state law to allow dispensaries to sell medical marijuana.

This change wouldn't be small potatoes. There is national interest in opening dispensaries across Oregon, with the Initiative 28 campaign receiving a $5,000 donation from the Berkeley Patients Group, which operates dispensaries in California and Maine.

Both Voter Power and Oregon Green Free run clinics that approve patients for medical marijuana, which would likely change to moneymaking dispensaries if the measure passes. Under the text of the measure, dispensaries would have to be nonprofit organizations, with any revenues going toward operational costs, scientific research, and assistance programs for low-income patients.

The split between advocates who want pot to be legal and those who see a chance to sell it in dispensaries has led different factions of the primary marijuana advocacy group, NORML, to turn against one another.

"NORML always favors legalization over medical marijuana," says national NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre. But on the other hand, he notes, "The most politically active groups have commercial interests."

St. Pierre expressed support for Initiative 28 in a statement released very late in the game—just 10 days before the deadline to turn in signatures. Meanwhile, Oregon NORML Executive Director Madeline Martinez is an obvious holdout against the proposed law.

"It is disappointing that Madeline Martinez [is not] supporting this reasonable reform," wrote Initiative 28 chief petitioner Anthony Johnson in response to a Mercury article ["Measuring Up," News, July 8].

Martinez says she's concerned that if commercial growing operations gain control of the supply to dispensaries, prices will stay high and there will be little incentive for further reform.

"I'm not opposed to dispensaries," says Martinez, "but I am opposed to prohibition pricing."

Backing Initiative 28 is Southern Oregon NORML, a group founded a year ago in Medford that does not associate itself with Oregon NORML.

"They used to be called Portland NORML until Madeline took over," complains Southern Oregon NORML Executive Director Lori Duckworth. "They don't speak for the state."

Duckworth says her group doesn't think the time is right to pursue legalization.

The group also has an icy relationship with its supposed parent organization, national NORML, which says they focus too strongly on the interests of growers rather than medical marijuana users.

"Southern Oregon NORML lies in a hotbed of cultivation, so their concerns are more around the cultivators," says St. Pierre. He cautions that the dispensary model could put cash into the hands of the criminals who run illegal grows in the area.

"People who are making untaxed, illegal money are in a better position to fund these things," says St. Pierre, adding that in a climate of increasing support for marijuana legalization, dispensary owners looking to maintain a hold on the trade will draw the scorn of pot users.

"Those industries are going to climb to the top of the shit list faster than the drug czar," he says.

Duckworth dismissed those fears. "We're not here to profit off of illegal operations," she says.