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Marijuana Measures In Oregon, Alaska Reflect Lessons Learned In Washington

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
FILE - In this photo taken Tuesday, July 1, 2014, a worker weighs out one-gram packets of a variety of recreational marijuana named "Space Needle," during packaging operations at Sea of Green Farms in Seattl

Two northwestern states are considering whether to follow Washington’s lead and legalize recreational marijuana. Oregon and Alaska will each take up the question on Nov. 4, and both ballot measures reflect lessons learned here.

There are plenty of different approaches to legalizing recreational marijuana, but for starters, there are basically two options on the menu: Colorado and Washington. So which one is more appealing to our neighbor states?

Colorado is seen as having moved quickly to implement its law, and has been refining it with regulations as it goes. The effect is either nimble or reckless, depending on one’s point of view. Washington is seen as the slower one, moving either carefully or ponderously, depending again on one’s take. These may be oversimplifications, but they are informing the political realities in states considering legalization.

“Here in Oregon, I think most people realize Washington has been a success,” said Anthony Johnson, chief petitioner of Oregon’s Measure 91.

“The Washington experience may provide a better model for Alaska than Colorado,” said Tim Hinterberger, chair of Measure 2 in Alaska.

Regulate Like Washington, But Tax It Differently

Both measures share some features with Washington’s: Each empowers the state liquor commission to set most of the rules. They create licenses for growers and retailers, and both ban consumption in public.

But the two states break from Washington in key ways, too. Take the tax structure: Washington taxes marijuana at about 44 percent of the cost. Both Oregon and Alaska would instead slap a flat excise tax on each ounce of pot: $35 in Oregon and $50 in Alaska. (See a side-by-side comparison of the measures)

Both say the more modest tax will help keep prices low enough to compete with black-market dealers, and avoid the sticker shock confronting Washington buyers paying three to five times more for a gram of legal recreational pot than they would pay a medical dispensary or a dealer.

And Alaska’s Time Hinterberger said the flat tax is more predictable.

“One good thing about having a fixed tax per ounce rather than, say, a percentage of the retail cost is that people wouldn’t have to guess how revenues might decline as the price decreases,” he said.

‘A Staggering Amount Of Weed’

Opponents say the low taxes are a drawback, which could encourage “leakage” of product to unauthorized users or other states. Josh Marquis is the district attorney for Clatsop County, a border county in northwest Oregon, and the volunteer spokesman for Oregon’s No on Measure 91 campaign. He pointed to other ways his state’s measure strays from Washington’s approach.

In Washington, for instance, adults over 21 can buy and possess up to an ounce of marijuana.

“In Oregon you can have eight ounces. And you can possess a pound of edibles, and 72 ounces of marijuana liquids, and you can possess an ounce of oil, and you can grow four plants per household. We’re talking about a staggering amount of weed,” he said.

And there’s nothing in Oregon’s — or Alaska’s — measure that explicitly bans products that may appeal to children, as Washington does.

“‘Pot tarts,’ gummy bears, things that are clearly designed to attract children. I mean, that’s what Joe Camel’s all about,” Marquis said.

‘Colorado As The Boogeyman’

Colorado has gotten lots of ink for its loose regulation of  edibles, but it recently moved to restrict them even more than Washington does. And it is worth noting that Washington’s tight regulations on edibles were not in the initiative either, but came rather from the Liquor Control Board’s rules. Both Alaska and Orgeon’s measures would allow their regulators to make similar rules.

Still, the perception remains that Colorado is the Wild West, compared with slow and steady Washington. Opponents of legalization in their states point to Colorado as the cautionary tale.

“The opposition doesn’t mention Washington that often, and tends to hold up Colorado as the boogeyman,” said Johnson of Oregon’s Measure 91. “I think that’s come about because Washington has taken such a deliberative, thoughtful approach.”

The target on Colorado may have more to do with how far along it is rather than how permissive. But it seems clear that backers in Alaska and Oregon are more willing to associate their measures with Washington’s law than with Colorado’s.

And that makes sense, said Oregon’s Johnson: All three northwestern states share some political DNA, and similar attitudes about pot.

“Alaska actually legalized person use in the '70s. Oregon was the first state to decriminalize small amounts in 1973. Oregon and Washington both were early medical marijuana states in 1998,” Johnson said. “We’ve all been states that have been at the forefront of marijuana law reform.”

Polls show close contests in both Alaska and Oregon. But if both measures were to pass, the northwestern states would cement their status as the most far-reaching outpost of pot country in America.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.