Activists in Oregon Fight for the Public Consumption of Cannabis on 2019 Ballot

Cannabis activists are taking their public consumption initiative to the ballot– no matter what.
Flickr/Stephen Melkisethian

As legalization spreads, advocates and activists have celebrated every step towards full, federal legalization. Despite the encouraging regulatory momentum, there are still plenty of gaps in legislation that actually make it illegal to consume cannabis — even though it’s legal to purchase, cultivate, and possess it. In Oregon, a new political action committee (PAC) called the New Revenue Coalition (NRC) is looking to take this problem — which they call an issue of social justice — head-on and make major changes throughout the state.

Angela Bacca, a campaign organizer, political strategist, and board member of Oregon NORML, has been working closely with Madeline Martinez, Sam Chapman, and Anthony Johnson to lead an initiative that urges lawmakers to legalize public consumption lounges for cannabis users.

The Future and History of Public Consumption

The bill would not only allow stand-alone cannabis cafes, it would also permit licensed retailers to add tasting and consumption lounges at their location. Additionally, the new law will allow temporary event licenses for regulated cannabis consumption at public events, and make space for unique businesses such as cannabis spas and bud and breakfasts. It also creates an opportunity for farm tourism by letting cannabis farms offer sales and areas for legal consumption similar to the winery model.

“Right now we have Senator Lew Frederick as our main sponsor in the senate and we have three other representatives who we believe are about to sign on,” Bacca tells High Times. “So we have bills going to both sides of the house, which we can then merge together into law.”

Bacca explains she and her team are doing everything they can to get the bill through the legislature– a difficult task, as ballot-initiatives are expensive, time-consuming, and take longer to implement.

“The minute we get that bill back we’ll be filing it,” she says. “It could come back any day.”

Martinez, the executive director of Oregon NORML, is responsible for opening the first cannabis consumption lounge in the US back in 2009. In 2016, Portland’s World Famous Cannabis Cafe was shut down due to the Indoor Clean Air Act (ICAA), which has been a major hurdle preventing consumption lounges from existing.

“Most states already have an Indoor Clean Air Act, which prevents cigarette smoking inside,” Martinez tells High Times. “After legalization passed in Oregon, someone specifically added cannabinoids to the state’s Indoor Clean Air Act, so we would like to get that reversed. I’m very hopeful the bill will pass. We’ve got a lot of good people on our side.”

Who the Bill Benefits

People of color, low income residents, and patients who rent property face a ton of problems when it comes to consuming cannabis. They often have to break the law to smoke in their house, as marijuana-use is prohibited from any federal or government-related housing. But it’s a catch-22 because, if a consumer goes outside to medicate, they’re more vulnerable to arrests. Homeowners, by contrast, don’t have to worry as much about the issues surrounding consumption; and in general, this demographic tends to be less marginalized than the aforementioned.

The current law also presents issues for tourists who visit Oregon’s dispensaries but find that they have nowhere to consume. Although states like California already have a model for consumption lounges, the NRC has hopes to move forward by setting an example.

“The thing with California is that Prop. 64 has its own rules for the state, but a lot of the rules are being made at the local level,” says Bacca. “So, the places where you can socially consume are regional, like San Francisco, Oakland and a couple other places. If we pass more laws for social consumption, we create more opportunities for people within our community to generate revenue. I don’t understand why our legislatures oppose these things that actually create a community benefit…”

Still, voters shouldn’t feel powerless against stubborn or unconvinced government officials who might be standing in the way of what the people want.

“When you have a majority of voters and constituents feeling one way and they all vote at the ballot for one thing, they need to keep following their legislatures because they are the ones who have the chance to cripple these laws,” Bacca says. “When voters pay attention to what their representatives are actually doing and demand a different situation, we won’t have to continue to fight so hard for something everyone wants.”

We’re Going to the Ballot

The goal, Bacca explains, ultimately isn’t to fight for legalization at the federal level. Rather, it’s to push for full-decriminalization and de-scheduling. The intent and power of Measure 91, the law that allowed for commercial and recreational cannabis in Oregon, has yet to be fully recognized thanks to the criminal element that still exists around the plant.

“Until we actually follow the science about cannabis being a safe plant, we’re not actually going to achieve the social justice goals of legalization that everyone preached on when [the law was getting] pushed through,” says Bacca. “Now, we want all the people who are making a profit on legalization to put their money where their mouth is and actually help us achieve those goals.”

If the bill–which is sponsored for 2019– is not successful, the PAC is totally prepared to take it to the ballot. But more than anything, Bacca wants government officials to know that the people supporting this initiative are a connected voting block.

“We’re a significant revenue-driving force in the state of Oregon and have been since before legalization,” she says. “If they don’t do something right by the people of Oregon at legislature next year, we will take [the bill] to the ballot where it will pass.”

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