PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley endorsed Oregon's Measure 91, which would legalize recreational marijuana, but voters are divided, with the outcome too close to call.
"I lean in support of it," Merkley told Talking Points Memo. Merkley is the first U.S. senator to endorse marijuana legalization.
"I think folks on both sides of the argument make a good case," he said, "but I feel on balance that we spend a lot of money on our criminal justice system in the wrong places and I lean in favor of this ballot measure."
Measure 91 would allow licensed dispensaries to sell marijuana for recreational use. Oregon already has legalized medical marijuana.
A poll conducted by The Oregonian and KGW-TV found the race too close to call.
As of Tuesday, 46 percent of voters asked were against legalizing pot, while 44 percent were for it. Seven percent were undecided. More than half of the voters younger than 35 supported Measure 91, while only 30 percent of voters 65 and older said they would vote for it.
Peter Zuckerman, spokesman for New Approach Oregon, laid out the rationale behind the measure.
"Treating marijuana as a crime has failed. It fuels cartel violence, doesn't protect children and wastes too many resources that could be spent on higher priorities, such as serious crime, schools and mental health. The longer we wait to change direction, the worse the damage gets. Measure 91 is far better approach," Zuckerman said.
Leah Maurer is a stay-at-home mother of three who started the Facebook group Moms for Yes on 91, which has grown to more than 1,000 members in two weeks.
"The current system is failing us," Maurer said. "It's failing us as parents and it's failing our children. Right now, there's absolutely no regulation. Marijuana out there in schools, in parks, it's on the streets, it's being sold under bleachers.
"Under Measure 91, all that would be brought out into the open," Maurer said. "Where it's coming from would be regulated and who it's going to would be regulated. It would all be regulated and sold only to adults."
Zuckerman said the campaign had "learned a tremendous amount" from a similar measure that failed two years ago.
Measure 91 is much tougher than the previous one, Zuckerman said. It would permit a maximum of four plants per person or 8 ozs. per household - less than the Colorado limit of six plants per person or 12 per household, but more than the Washington allowance of two plants and 1 oz. per person. The measure lets employers keep the ability to drug-test, calls for the state liquor control commission to regulate the drug and allows individual communities to vote on whether to ban marijuana.
Clatsop County District Attorney Joshua Marquis, a prominent voice for the opposition, disagreed.
Marquis said Measure 91 allows people to have much more of the drug than either Colorado or Washington.
"You could have a pound of edibles," Marquis said. "These things look like Pop Tarts. 'Mile High Chocolate Bars.' One ounce of hash oil. Seventy-two fluid ounces of liquid marijuana extract. This stuff is bright yellow. It looks like soda pop.
"Who are you making candies, sodas and pop tarts for?" Marquis asked. "Is that really intended for adults?"
But Zuckerman said his campaign had secured significant backing.
"This measure has been endorsed and vetted by The New York Times, The Oregonian, former Oregon Supreme Court Justice Bill Riggs and many people in organizations that know a good law when they see one," Zuckerman said.
Marquis scoffed at the assertion.
"Vetted by The New York Times? No. The New York Times has opined on it and The Oregonian has given a very lukewarm endorsement," Marquis said.
Zuckerman said the decriminalization of marijuana was an important component of Measure 91.
"If you want to protect children, you want to get marijuana out of the criminal market and stop empowering illegal dealers. Under the current system, we give too much power to illegal dealers," Zuckerman said.
"Right now, our law enforcement is distracted," Maurer said. "Thousands of adults are arrested every year in the state of Oregon for small amounts of marijuana. Under Measure 91, all those resources would be freed up to focus on violent crimes and to focus on those drug dealers who are marketing drugs to teens. Essentially, the black market would be put out."
But Marquis said it hasn't been a crime to possess small amounts of marijuana in Oregon for 40 years. He said Oregon has the second-lowest number of drug arrests in the country.
"Seventy percent of people in prison in Oregon are there for violent offenses," he said. "And do you know how many are in prison for marijuana charges? Seventy-one. Seventy-one people out of 15,000 imprisoned in the state. That's one half of 1 percent."
Zuckerman said the measure would help keep marijuana away from kids by adding an extra layer of regulations.
"As we've seen with tobacco, taxation and regulation to pay for education have been very effective in reducing teen use," Zuckerman said.
"I think actually a better drug to compare it with would be alcohol. And how well have we done keeping alcohol out of the hands of teenagers? Not well at all.
"I would agree that alcohol is more toxic and more addicting than marijuana, but as somebody who deals with the people who can't handle substances, the idea of dumping massive amounts of psychoactive drugs onto people is going to be a train wreck," Marquis said.
"The sky won't fall, civilization won't end, but I know that in my area I will have several more fatal car accidents," Marquis said. "And the idea of explaining that to families in the waiting room is not theoretical for me."
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