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Liquor, pot debate moves from Capitol to ballot

Mar 9, 2014


By CHAD GARLAND
Of the Associated Press

SALEM — Now that key liquor and pot bills failed to gain traction in the Oregon Legislature, the venue shifts to the ballot box.

Groups are proceeding with initiatives that would put questions on the November ballot about ending the state's control over the liquor business and legalizing recreational use of marijuana.

Since the end of Prohibition, just 18 states, mostly in the Northwest and mid-Atlantic, chose to control liquor sales within their borders. In 2011, Washington became the first of those states to privatize its liquor sales after voters there approved an initiative backed by grocers and Costco Wholesale Corp.

Grocery chains such as Fred Meyer and Safeway have now set their sights on privatizing liquor sales in Oregon, where only state-regulated liquor stores are currently permitted to sell distilled spirits.

Those stores — there are about 250 — are privately owned, but the state owns the alcohol on their shelves and pays a percentage of each sale to the owner. Liquor sales are the state's third-biggest revenue generator after income taxes and the lottery. Officials project sales during the current two-year budget cycle will reach more than $1 billion, generating $252 million for the state general fund and $172 million for cities and counties.

Instead, the coalition of grocers wants the state to allow stores that already sell beer and wine and are at least 10,000 square feet to be allowed to sell liquor, too. Existing liquor stores would be allowed to stay open, and some smaller shops like wine specialty stores would be able to sell liquor.

Opponents of privatization say it could hurt the state's revenue, but the grocers say their measure would contain a “circuit-breaker” to ensure the state meets its projections.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which runs the state's alcohol sales system, opposes privatization, but the Legislature declined to take action on a “hybrid” bill designed by the commission. That bill would have let grocery stores stock liquor while keeping the state in control of the sales and distribution.

The bill's “absence from the discussion simplifies the debate about what will be proposed in our ballot measure,” said Pat McCormick, a spokesman for Oregonians for Competition, a political group backed by the Northwest Grocery Association, which is pushing for privatization.

Three of the group's original eight privatization initiatives filed with the Secretary of State's Office remain active at various stages in the process, though the field will eventually narrow to just one, McCormick said. He said efforts to circulate petitions could begin in a few months. They will need to collect 87,213 valid signatures by early July.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, proposed a ballot measure that would have asked voters whether to legalize marijuana but left it to the 2015 Legislature to write the regulations. The bill went nowhere, however, so he says Oregon voters will only be able to decide on marijuana regulations that were written by advocates before anyone had an opportunity to learn from the legalization experiences in Washington and Colorado.

Some marijuana-legalization advocates had supported Prozanski's efforts, but say now they are preparing to put the question to the voters. Their two initiatives have turned in less than a quarter of the signatures needed by July 3, 2014, to qualify for the November ballot.

At least two more pot-legalization ballot measures have also been filed with the Secretary of State's Office.

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Associated Press writer Jonathan J. Cooper contributed to this report.

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Reach reporter Chad Garland on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/chadgarland.

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