Proponents say the tide is quickly shifting in their favor after Colorado and Washington voters supported pot legalization initiatives last year. They urged lawmakers to create a system to regulate and tax marijuana before an advocacy group pushes a ballot measure that might be poorly written and less desirable to lawmakers.
"Marijuana legalization is coming to Oregon rather soon than later," said Anthony Johnson of New Approach Oregon, an advocacy group that drafted the legislation. "It makes sense for Oregon to regulate marijuana like alcohol, and really take the lead on this issue and make sure there are sensible and strong regulations in place."
Johnson said the measure would generate revenue to pay for schools, police and substance abuse treatment.
The House Judiciary Committee briefly discussed the proposal Tuesday before sending it to the Revenue Committee for more discussion. Rep. Jeff Barker, a Democrat from Aloha who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he didn't think the bill would be ready to move this year.
Critics were concerned about the health effects of marijuana and said the state should wait and see how the federal government responds to legalization in Colorado and Washington.
"This act will not make the problems associated with marijuana go away," said Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett, citing drug abuse and dependency, impaired driving, and underage use. "In some cases this act will make those problems worse."
Garrett said he was doubtful the measure would raise much revenue, noting that it allows marijuana users to grow their own pot and wouldn't have to purchase it from a taxable market.
The measure would remove restrictions on the possession and use of marijuana by people 21 and older. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission would be the regulator for marijuana producers, wholesalers and retailers. Pot would be taxed at a rate of $35 per ounce.
Advocates are making an aggressive pitch, pulling in a prominent Portland law firm, Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt, to draft the bill and a respected polling firm, DHM Research, to take the temperature of voters.
Voters rejected a marijuana legalization initiative last year, 47 percent to 53 percent. Legalization advocates spent millions helping to get Washington's and Colorado's measures passed but avoided Oregon, complaining that its measure was poorly drafted and didn't qualify for the ballot in time for them to make an effective case to voters.