TO GET A SENSE of just how insane the race over legal pot has become in recent weeks, start with an email.
On September 25, New Approach Oregon—the campaign pushing Measure 91, which would legalize recreational marijuana statewide—sent supporters a release with the subject line: "FEARSOME." In text that psychedelically shifts between different colors and fonts and levels of capitalization, New Approach campaign director Liz Kaufman described how the state's sheriffs—via a lobbying arm—had given the opposition $100,000.
"We need your help to battle back against that fearsome donation," the release blared. "Donate now so we can keep pace!"
Kaufman made no mention of a more staid message her campaign had sent out a little more than a month earlier, touting its own financial news: New Approach had just bought $2.3 million in TV advertising, the "largest ad buy so far for 2014 Oregon ballot measures."
In fact, New Approach attracted more than $1.5 million over the course of its campaign, according to its most recent filings, with enormous donations from out-of-state contributors accounting for the vast majority. That's an amount the "No on 91" people, backed chiefly by state law enforcement officials, can't hope to match.
So why the many-hued SOS to supporters? It's partly because a new person is coordinating the campaign's email blasts, Kaufman says. But also: The fight for your pot allegiance is extremely tight.
Recent polling from KATU and SurveyUSA suggests the voter margin for Measure 91 is growing closer all the time—the yes vote leading by a paltry four points, 44 to 40. Meanwhile voters 65 and over, who reliably fill out ballots, are solidly opposed.
Against this backdrop, the pot debate has become one of the year's most contentious, with partisans on both sides inundating the Oregon Secretary of State's Office with elections complaints alleging misuse of state money and undocumented campaigning.
On September 11, four state lawmakers sent a letter to Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Secretary of State Kate Brown raising new concerns about a weeks-old issue.
In August, a 13-city "Oregon Marijuana Education Tour" drew the ire of pot advocates (including US Representative Earl Blumenauer) after Willamette Week revealed organizers planned to use federal money to bankroll a series of events that would be overwhelmingly critical of marijuana—effectively campaigning on the public dime.
In response to the criticisms, and under pressure from the Oregon Health Authority, organizers scaled back the tour almost immediately, and county employees who'd been working on the event rushed to sever ties.
Recent calls to each of the 13 cities where forums were scheduled suggested only four have not been canceled—including an October 1 event in Keizer, and another the following day in Roseburg—though representatives in five cities never got back to the Mercury.
Even after those changes, though, Senators Chip Shields (D-Portland) and Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene), along with Representatives Paul Holvey (D-Eugene) and Alissa Keny-Guyer (D-Portland), said in the September letter they're concerned public employees and resources are being used illegally to plan the tour. They want the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate, along with state elections officials.
"By all appearances, the tour and its sponsors are violating Oregon law," the lawmakers wrote. They laid out a detailed case that the tour—taking place directly before an election over pot and featuring prominent anti-marijuana speakers—amounts to campaigning, but appear to have cited outdated tour flyers as evidence public employees are involved.
Nonetheless, Shields, the only legislator who responded to the Mercury's inquiry, says he's still concerned.
"The inappropriate use of state taxpayer dollars still needs to be investigated," Shields wrote in an email. "Also, there may [be] four of these forums still in the works in places like Salem and Madras, that should be stopped if state resources were used in their planning."
A DOJ spokesman says the department hasn't decided whether to look into the matter, deferring to an ongoing investigation by the secretary of state's office.
Named specifically in the lawmakers' letter is Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, the public face of the No on 91 campaign. In a September 25 response to elections officials, Marquis called the complaint a "rambling three-page letter."
But it's not the first time Marquis' involvement has been singled out. Two pot activists—local internet radio host "Radical" Russ Belville and a woman named Jennifer Alexander—have also filed elections complaints alleging the marijuana tour violates Oregon law.
Meanwhile, Marquis has a grievance of his own. On Wednesday, September 24, the DA complained an "investigation" into him by Belville—financed by thousands of dollars in donations—is a thinly veiled effort to fight for Measure 91. As such, Marquis says Belville needs to report his donations and expenditures with the state.
"He is obviously free to criticize and even lie about my record in his own blog, on his own 'internet radio show' or by giving away articles to places like the Huntington Post [sic]," Marquis wrote in an email sent to the Oregon Secretary of State's Office. "But when he raises and expends thousands of dollars to affect the outcome of an imminent ballot measure he... is required to register with the secretary of state and report the name, amount, and occupation of his contributors."
As support for his contentions, Marquis pointed to a crowd-funding campaign set up by Belville to, in the pot activist's words, "fight the use of public funds to defeat marijuana legalization in Oregon."
What the fund really went toward is financing records requests Belville filed with numerous Oregon prosecutors for communications surrounding the "education tour." The crowd-funding campaign had raised $2,435 when Marquis filed the complaint. Receipts doubled after the Mercury reported on the filing.
Marquis also suggested Belville is behind a website, joshmarquisexposed.com, that spreads falsehoods about the DA's record—including a suggestion he allowed a future murderer to be released from jail.
"This is probably the most uncivil campaign that I've been around in my entire life," Marquis told the Mercury. "Why am I being targeted? For one reason: To shut me the fuck up."
Belville, meanwhile, says he has nothing to do with the website, and that he's not running any sort of campaign.
"I'm just a citizen," Belville says, "who's concerned that the district attorney and others in the state and county government have been using grant money to illegally campaign against Measure 91."