By Ashbel S. Green
of The Oregonian staff
The wealthy businessmen and professional political consultants who persuaded Arizona and California voters last year to liberalize marijuana laws have turned their attention to Oregon.
Their target is a bill passed by the 1997 Legislature that would recriminalize small amounts of marijuana. Formed less than one month ago, Citizens for Sensible Law Enforcement claims to have raised about $100,000 for a referendum effort to overturn the law. And with an Oct. 3 deadline looming, a spokesman says the organization has gathered the 49,000 signatures needed to block the law from going into effect the next day and to put it before voters in November 1998.
"Quite a change for the Oregon marijuana initiatives," said Bill Zimmerman, a California consultant who is working on the referendum.
Indeed, the effort marks a sharp departure from a decade of ragtag, futile attempts to legalize marijuana in the state. Five initiative efforts have failed to reach the ballot in the past decade. The last measure to go before the voters, in 1986, failed by a 3-1 ratio.
The new effort also puts Oregon in the middle of a national political debate about U.S. drug policy.
Businessmen Peter Lewis, John Sperling and Geroge Soros, who largely bankrolled the campaigns last year in California and Arizona, have contributed much of the money raised in Oregon.
All three have said the war on drugs is a failure and a huge waste of tax dollars. They have spent millions of dollars of their own money on initiatives that would change the nation's drug policy.
The change in Oregon's pot politics is best exemplified by a split between two rival referendum groups. The first group, headed by several of Oregon's veteran marijuana activists, claims to have gathered about 28,000 signatures. That's far short of the 48,841 needed to be turned in to the Oregon secretary of state's office by Oct. 3.
In July, when the referendum effort started, the local activists asked the California campaign for help, but not everyone agreed on tactics. In late August, Citizens for Sensible Law Enforcement split off, claiming it needed to run the type of mainstream campaign that succeeded in convincing California and Arizona voters that marijuana had legitimate medicinal uses.
"We're not out to sing the praises of marijuana or work for its legalization, as most of the people involved in Oregon (marijuana) politics have been for the past several years," said Zimmerman, who ran the campaign in California last year. "We are trying to do something a lot less dramatic than that."
In Oregon, that means convincing voters that locking up pot smokers is a waste of money, he said.
Not surprisingly, the first group feels maligned and betrayed by a group they invited to Oregon to help.
"I don't think it was a proper characterization that we were hippies or potheads or whatever," said Jon Zimmer, a chief petitioner for the original referendum effort.
Still, Zimmer acknowledges that his group is struggling.
"Things could be better," he said. "I was not happy with the way things turned out."
Meanwhile, Citizens for Sensible Law Enforcement claims to be cruising.
"We're on track," said Todd Olson, a chief petitioner. "Our goal is to get 80,000 (signatures). We want to be sure. I think we're over what's required now."
Olson emphasizes the local connections of his group. He is legislative aide to Rep. George Eighmey, D-Portland. The other chief petitioner is Michael Rose, who was active in the last marijuana measure that made it to the ballot in 1986 and failed decisively.
"This is a local coalition, too," Olson said.
But the national money and professional campaigns are intimately involved.
Lewis, an Ohio businessman, and Sperling, an Arizona businessman, gave heavily to the Arizona and California campaigns. Both have contributed to the Oregon campaign, and an initiative on Washington's November ballot that would legalize marijuana for medicinal use.
Also involved is Soros, the billionaire financier who was on the cover of Time magazine recently for a story about the controversial causes he supports.
Soros, according to a spokesman, has pledged $50,000 to the Oregon campaign.
Money from Soros, Lewis, Sperling and others fueled the Arizona and California campaigns. Lewis and Sperling have given most of the $750,000 raised by a Washington medicinal marijuana measure, while its opponents have raised just $11,000, according to the latest campaign filing reports.
As in Oregon, the latest Washington initiative has largely excluded the long term activists.
"The grass-roots organizations still seem to exist," said Tim Killian, campaign manager for Citizens for Drug Policy Reform, which is pushing the Washington medicinal marijuana measure.
"There are some players nationally who are taking an active role. And they're not necessarily going through the grass roots."
In Oregon, the attempt to repeal the recriminalization law may not be the only marijuana measure on the 1998 ballot. Zimmerman said the same national figures are interested in putting a medicinal marijuana bill on the ballot, too.
That campaign also is likely to leave behind many of the old-time activists, Zimmerman said.
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