If Oregon voters legalize marijuana this year, the state could end up with the best local option rules for legal marijuana so far — and we will mostly have a more than century-old law and the enduring power of status quo bias to thank.
Anthony Johnson, the co-author of the initiative set to make the ballot this year, believes “it makes sense for Oregon to regulate marijuana substantially similar to how we regulate beer and wine.” So the New Approach Oregon campaign decided to model the local option rules for its marijuana initiative after the local option rules for alcohol in the state, creating a notable difference from Colorado’s local option rules.
While in a broad sense this Oregon initiative is similar to the new law in Colorado, local option rules — a seemingly minor technical issue — can have a huge real world impact. Amendment 64 in Colorado made it very easy for municipalities to ban adult-use marijuana businesses; all it takes is for a local council to pass an ordinance. The result is adult-use marijuana businesses are still prohibited in most of the counties in the state (Note: some cities within these “straight” counties permit businesses).
Under the Oregon initiative, for a locality to outright ban adult-use marijuana businesses, a petition must be filed to put it on the ballot. This not only makes trying to adopt a ban more logistically difficult but assures the issue goes before the local voters.
This is very important for anything related to marijuana because voters tend to be far more progressive on the issue than politicians at all levels. Take, for example, Colorado Springs. Last year the local council voted to ban adult-use marijuana stories even though a majority in the city voted for Amendment 64.
In addition to requiring a local vote, the New Approach Oregon campaign included an extra carrot to encourage cities to take part. A portion of tax revenue generated by legal marijuana sales will be distributed only to localities which take part — after all, it is only these localities which are responsible for generating the new revenue.
“The local option design, along with the explicit ability to regulate the time, place and manner of licensed and regulated facilities, should encourage more cities and counties to take part,” Johnson told me. “With lean budgets and tough economic times, it seems that most localities cannot afford to turn away a new source of revenue.”
The Oregon initiative strikes a balance between providing localities a viable way to opt out while encouraging broad participation. When I asked Johnson if he thought it should serve as a model for legalization campaigns in other states, he stressed that every campaign needs to consider the unique interests of their state. Still, he said he thinks it makes sense to allow everyone in the locality to “have a vote on such an issue instead of leaving the decision up to just a handful of people.”
We can see the big impact seemingly small differences in local option rules for legal marijuana can have by looking at the history of alcohol regulation. While most of the country ended their local alcohol prohibitions long ago, almost half of Mississippi is still dry in large part because the state had the least alcohol-friendly local option rules in 1966, when it ended statewide prohibition. Unlike most states where rules require counties to actively choose to ban alcohol, every county in Mississippi was made dry by default. Liquor sales only become legal once a campaign gathers a significant number of signatures to put the issue on the local ballot and a majority vote in favor.
Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy