MICHAEL McNICHOLS is a man of marijuana-scented mystery.

McNichols is a Canby attorney who deals in bankruptcies, probate matters, and general civil litigation. He's fiscally minded, an MBA who chairs the budget committee at Clackamas Community College. And, though he didn't much want to talk about it with the Mercury, McNichols says pot should be legal.

"There's no reason it shouldn't be taxed," he said recently in a brief phone conversation. "There's this failed war on drugs."

Which is a funny thing to hear from the person who, more than anyone else, is inhibiting what may be Oregon's best shot at legal weed this year.

McNichols has temporarily blocked the path of Initiative 37, the well-funded, strong-polling proposal to put legalization up for a vote in November. Using a time-tested delay tactic, he's slowing activists' progress just as the Oregon Legislature's made it clear that movement on the issue won't come from Salem.

With a July 3 deadline looming, activists are anxious to begin gathering the nearly 90,000 valid signatures they need to make the ballot.

"The window is shrinking," says Anthony Johnson, chief petitioner and director of New Approach Oregon, the political action committee behind the initiative.

How did McNichols manage to get pot activists on edge? He appealed the initiative's ballot language before the Oregon Supreme Court, arguing the verbiage doesn't adequately summarize the law change. Until the court rules—a move that could happen in two days or two months, for all anyone but the justices know—the proposal is on ice.

All the while, people are scratching their heads about McNichols' intentions. Even Paul Stanford, the perennial pot activist who succeeded in getting a legalization measure on the 2012 ballot, questions McNichols' apparent support of two measures that Stanford's floating this year.

"I sometimes think when he says he likes ours better, maybe he's trying to hurt us," Stanford said recently.

"He's a complete mystery," says Johnson, who insists he's not worried about the delay just yet. "I suspect that somebody's put him up to it."

In the meantime, New Approach is trying to hurry things along.

The group filed a separate, similar initiative in late January. Both proposals would legalize and tax marijuana use for people 21 years old and older, allow Oregonians to cultivate their own modest stash tax-free, and charge the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) with licensing and regulation. The new one offers a tiny change, specifically excluding "industrial hemp" from the definition of marijuana.

By filing the new initiative, Johnson says he's partly trying to find out if it polls better. But the group also wants to dodge McNichols' scrutiny, which seems unlikely. Ballot language the Oregon Department of Justice crafted for the new effort is nearly identical to the verbiage that was appealed in the first place.

McNichols didn't return numerous calls for comment after language for the new initiative was revealed on March 7. He has until March 21 to file an appeal.

In February, McNichols insisted he'd appealed the first measure "strictly as a concerned citizen." But he also said he prefers Stanford's proposals over New Approach's, calling them "very good in their simplicity."

Stanford's central initiative—the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act—resembles Measure 80, the proposal that garnered almost 47 percent of the vote in 2012, even as it failed to get much in the way of national backing.  

This time around, Stanford's tweaked the 2012 measure to include more regulatory oversight by the governor—who would appoint a regulatory board independent of the OLCC—and he's gotten the attention of a Texas organization willing to send big checks. He's also floating a constitutional amendment to allow for legal pot.

Both efforts have been gathering signatures since late last year, and, as of mid-February, they have 27,661 and 13,625 signatures, respectively, according to figures from the Oregon Secretary of State's office. Stanford says the real number is larger.

"These measures will be on the ballot," the activist boasted in a recent press release.

Stanford concedes the delays from McNichols could help his cause, since people might become confused if three separate marijuana petitions are in circulation.

"People will think they signed one when they really signed the other one," he says. "Every signature we get will make it harder for them to get signatures."

On top of that, he seems to have a lingering resentment toward New Approach. Until last summer, Stanford was working in tandem with the group. He says he was unceremoniously jettisoned, and that the group now only speaks to him through intermediaries.

Still, Stanford says he supports any effort to legalize marijuana, and he recently acceded to a request from New Approach that he reach out to McNichols.

"They asked me to call him and tell him to withdraw his challenge," Stanford says. "I did try to call him and left him a message. He never called back."

History suggests New Approach hasn't run out of time to gather enough signatures, but that it should move soon.

In 2012, campaigners behind Measure 85, a proposal to partly dismantle Oregon's so-called "kicker" law, got permission to begin collecting signatures on April 17. The campaign turned in more than 200,000 signatures by the July 6 deadline.

Still, there was a delay of nearly a month from the time the Oregon Supreme Court ruled on that measure's ballot language and when the campaign was allowed to collect signatures. New Approach could be looking at kicking off its effort in April.

In a beautiful turn of events, New Approach has hired local signature-gathering firm Democracy Resources to carry out the petition effort when the time comes. That company recently hired a new vice president of strategy and business development: Former Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen, who resigned from office amid news of an affair and allegations of frequent pot use.

When the Mercury called Democracy Resources for an estimate of how long a successful signature-gathering campaign might take, it was Cogen who called back.

"It varies issue by issue, but on an issue like this one, where there's broad and enthusiastic support, there's still plenty of time," he says. "It could become too late eventually, but now is not that time."