Oregon is now the third state to fully allow the sales and possession of marijuana for recreational purposes — nearly 11 months after the state's voters in November approved a ballot initiative to legalize the drug.
As of Thursday, Oregon allows medical marijuana dispensaries to sell the drug for recreational purposes. Oregonians can now buy a quarter of an ounce of cannabis buds or pre-rolled joints at a time, up to four times to reach the legal limit for public possession, according to local TV station KGW. The state is limiting what can be bought and sold for now, as the start of sales in medical marijuana dispensaries is meant as a stopgap measure until policymakers finish setting up the full regulatory model and begin accepting applications for recreational businesses in January.
Back in July, the state began allowing adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana outside their homes, eight ounces inside their homes, and four pot plants. Adults can also gift and receive pot, but public smoking remains illegal.
Oregon joins the ranks of Colorado and Washington state, which legalized marijuana sales through voter initiatives in 2012. Alaska and Washington, DC, also allow possession, with Alaska expected to allow sales sometime next year at the earliest.
The approval of these ballot initiatives in part reflects the belief that marijuana is a relatively harmless drug, so adults should be allowed to use it as they please. But in Oregon, advocates strongly pushed the argument that the prohibition of marijuana has created a black market that has funded violent criminal organizations — all while failing to significantly reduce the number of adolescents using marijuana.
Oregonians can possess a lot of marijuana
The Portland Police Bureau put together the handy visual guide above showing how much marijuana Oregonians can carry on them at any given time compared with a voodoo donut, a baked delicacy in Portland. The limit of eight ounces is much higher than laws allow in other jurisdictions: Colorado, Washington state, and Alaska allow up to one ounce, and DC allows up to two ounces.
Violating these limits can lead to arrest — although a Drug Policy Alliance study of marijuana legalization in Colorado found that these types of arrests were much less common than arrests for possession prior to legalization.
The case for marijuana legalization
While Oregon is just one among a few states that allow marijuana sales and possession, it is part of a much broader movement to undo a war on drugs that has led to violence around the world and failed to significantly cut back drug abuse.
"Marijuana is a big business right now. It's a multibillion-dollar, huge business in the United States," Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who supported the initiative, said in October. "The problem is it's illegal, so it's not regulated, it's not taxed, and there aren't consumer protections."
Legalizing marijuana nationwide could take a big chunk of revenue from drug cartels: as much as 20 to 30 percent of their drug exporting revenue, according to previous estimates from the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness (2012) and the RAND Corporation (2010). This money funds criminal groups' violent trafficking operations in much of Latin America, which contribute to the killing and kidnapping of tens of thousands of people each year and have spawned horrifying stories of cartels beheading and torturing people. The hope is that legalization will severely weaken drug cartels by depleting a big source of revenue, rendering them less able to continue their horrifying acts.
Blumenauer added that he views a regulated pot market as a better way to fight teen drug use. "I don't want any young people using marijuana," he said. "That's one of the reasons I'm working very hard on the Oregon campaign. Right now, nobody checks ID for a junior high girl who's buying dope. The illegal drug dealer has no license to lose."
There's some evidence a regulated model may be able to reduce drug use. Over the past few decades, nationwide teen tobacco and alcohol use has dropped — which many experts attribute to education campaigns and tighter age restrictions. At the same time, teen marijuana use across the country has climbed despite prohibition.
The legalization initiative unlocks revenue, through marijuana taxes, for campaigns that aim to prevent drug use and educate the public on its risks. This approach is similar to Colorado, which started its own education campaign to curtail teen marijuana use after voters legalized the drug. So far, that state hasn't seen an increase in teen pot use — although experts caution that it's far too early to tell what the full effects of legalization will be since Colorado's recreational sales only began in 2014.
The case against marijuana legalization
But the legalization movement has also been met with skeptics, who fear the legalization and commercialization of marijuana will lead to cheap and easy access to the drug, potentially causing use — and the issues that may come with it, such as car crashes — to skyrocket.
"Oregonians need to pause and watch those two states and learn before jumping into something as serious as this," Mandi Puckett, who directed the opposition campaign, said in October.
Puckett pointed to the risks of marijuana-laced edibles, which are sometimes difficult to distinguish from candy products advertised to children. Lawmakers increased regulations on the products after a teenager ate a marijuana cookie and jumped to his death. And New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about her terrible experience after eating some marijuana candy.
"It just makes no sense why we would offer addictive products that look like products kids consume," Puckett argued. "There's already been many documented cases of kids accidentally ingesting these products."
Opponents of legalization say the problems with edibles — particularly packaging and marketing that makes these products look like children's candy — is indicative of the irresponsible behavior that can be expected from marijuana companies if legalization spreads.
Critics also worry that for-profit pot companies will encourage the abuse and overuse of pot since the heaviest users will be their most lucrative customers. In Colorado, one study of the state's pot market by the Marijuana Policy Group for the Colorado Department of Revenue found the top 29.9 percent heaviest pot users in the state made up 87.1 percent of demand for the drug. That means pot businesses' best customers are those who arguably use too much, which could be a sign of dependency and lead to lost productivity.
"If we were a country with a history of being able to promote moderation in our consumer use of products, or promote responsible corporate advertising or no advertising, or if we had a history of being able to take taxes gained from a vice and redirect them into some positive areas, I might be less concerned about what I see happening in this country," Kevin Sabet, co-founder of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said in March. "But I think we have a horrible history of dealing with these kinds of things."
Puckett also claimed that legalization could lead to more dangerous drugged drivers. In Colorado, the latest numbers from the state's Department of Transportation found more drivers involved in fatal crashes tested positive for marijuana after 2008, when medical marijuana dispensaries began opening widely across the state, but no further increase in 2013, the first full year of completely legalized possession. (Data for 2014, the first year of recreational marijuana sales, isn't available.)
But it's proven tricky to accurately test for drugged driving: Fewer than half the drivers in this data set who were involved in a fatal accident were tested for drugs, and it's unknown if people were high at the time of their deaths, since marijuana can remain in someone's system for weeks — long after the drug's effects have worn off.
Figuring out how to deal with edibles and drugged driving are some of the challenges regulators and legislators in Oregon will face in the coming months as they move toward retail pot sales. As states push forward with legalization, they're facing a clear mandate by voters to end a punitive approach to at least part of the war on drugs — but they're also going into uncharted waters when it comes to policy.