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In Oregon, Marijuana Advocates Make Their Next Move: Running For Office


Now that recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon, some activists and entrepreneurs are taking the next step: They’re running for office themselves.

Five years ago, Brie Malarkey and her family decided they were tired of the hectic pace of life in the Willamette Valley. They bought 40 acres outside the southern Oregon town of Shady Cove. They have a few goats and an enormous herb garden.

And one of Malarkey’s crops is cannabis. As in, marijuana. Not only does she grow the stuff — she sells it. Malarkey runs two southern Oregon dispensaries that sell to both recreational and medical customers.

As a marijuana business owner she closely followed the legislature’s actions on marijuana over the past two years. And she said she came to this conclusion:

“The over-burdensome regulations that many legislators were putting into place and administrative rules as the agencies implemented the programs were not going to be advantageous to starting a successful small-business enterprise here in Oregon,” Malarkey said.

And so she decided to throw her hat in the ring. She’s running for a seat in the Oregon House. It’s her first run for public office. She’s one of three legislative candidates in Oregon this year with close ties to marijuana, either as businesspeople or as activists. Others are running for local offices.

“These are really symbolic gestures,” said Amy Margolis, who heads a marijuana industry group called the Oregon Cannabis Association.

While Margolis isn’t sure any of the candidates will win, she said she looks forward to a time when office-holders have a level of expertise in the subject and don’t have to be schooled in pot 101. But she said even if they don’t win, just running is a logical next step.

“I think you’re going to see different levels of seriousness and different levels of sophistication with that engagement, but that’s what it demonstrates to me is that the activists are maturing in their approach,” Margolis said.

And Margolis said not all of the candidates even want the same thing. While Brie Malarkey is concerned about regulations on her business, Tyler Gabriel said he’s running for the Oregon House because he’s worried about possible threats to the state’s medical marijuana program.

“The state of Oregon seems to think that they can eliminate the medical marijuana program and eliminate medicine from their patients and to have it all taxed as if they’re recreational users,” Gabriel said. “That’s their goal and that’s what’s slowly happening. And I want to prevent that.”

Gabriel is running in a House district in north-central Oregon. He’s a medical marijuana patient who also grows for other patients. A third legislative candidate is Stormy Ray, a longtime medical marijuana activist who’s running for a state Senate seat in eastern Oregon.

Former President Bill Clinton speaks at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, during a campaign rally for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on March 21, 2016.

Former President Bill Clinton speaks at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, during a campaign rally for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on March 21, 2016.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Regardless of whether they win or not, the political climate around marijuana is a far cry from 1992 when Bill Clinton famously said on TV, ”I experimented with marijuana a time or two and I didn’t like it, and didn’t inhale, and never tried it again.”

“I didn’t inhale” became a national punch line. But Clinton of course went on to become president. Brie Malarkey said as a young adult she actually got to meet Clinton during that campaign. And ironically — despite growing and selling marijuana — she’s used it even less than the former president.

“I personally don’t use cannabis,” Malarkey said. “I don’t have a medical need. But I believe in freedom of choice and I believe in people being able to have safe access to make their own decisions for their own body. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

Come November, Malarkey’s party affiliation could be a bigger political liability than her cannabis career. She’s seeking to oust the top Republican in the Oregon House in a district where GOP voters far outnumber Democrats.

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