Deregulating Booze; Regulating Pot

Changing public attitudes seem to favor relaxation of alcohol regulation and regulation of marijuana as opposed to an outright ban or backdoor use as medical marijuana.The current tight regulation of alcohol and prohibition of marijuana may no longer reflect majority public sentiment leaning in Oregon, pointing to some combination of legislative and ballot measure action as early as next year.

At the center of this changing landscape is the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), which may see part of its job slip while picking up a whole new portfolio of regulation. The OLCC is an agency in the midst of its own transition, with a new chair, Rob Patridge, and a newly nominated executive director, Steve Marks. Both have strong ties to Governor Kitzhaber, who can be expected at some point to weigh in on these countervailing directions.

Oregonians have voted on marijuana measures before. In 1998, Oregon voters approved the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, allowing patients to use marijuana for an expanding range of medical conditions. Following the implementation of the medical marijuana act, Oregon legislators moved to decriminalize possession and use of small amounts of marijuana.

In 2012, despite pressure from national interest groups to take a more balanced approach, Oregon advocates placed the most liberal marijuana possession and legalization framework in the country on the Oregon ballot. Despite its failure, recent polling still shows that more than 60 percent of Oregonians favor a “legalize and tax it” strategy on marijuana. 

Today, three ballot measures addressing marijuana legalization are approved for circulation. This reality led Rep. Phil Barnhart (D-Eugene) to tell The Oregonian he was unimpressed with people who use marijuana, but if legislators didn’t figure out a solution to combat the failure of the prohibition of the drug, activists would. And, Oregonians would regret the outcome.

Barnhart's logic — that a good bad bill is better than a bad bad bill — seems to have attracted the interest of Republicans who may seek to find common ground on a legislative referral.

On alcohol, Oregon has taken a wait-and-see approach to change in regulation as states such as Washingtonian cashed in their prohibition-era alcohol control system and allowed retailers, such as Costco, to sell liquor. Higher prices and fewer options have left the success of the changes in Washington in the eyes of the beholder. 

In his new role, Patridge, a former state legislator from Medford, seems eager to find ways to placate public interest in greater access to liquor and blunt retailer-led efforts to dump the entire state liquor monopoly. 

It remains to be seen whether policymakers can craft legislative solutions for either of these issues that can ward off interest groups pursuing ballot measures and gain enough political support to pass.

What does seem clear is that increased deregulation of booze will occur at the same as enthusiasm builds to regulate pot instead of ban it outright. All we need is a sharp graduate student to do a thesis on how both trends reflect the same community evolution on booze and pot.