PORTLAND — As marijuana legalization efforts in Colorado and Washington pick up steam, a similar push in Oregon seems to be going up in smoke.
More than $4 million has flowed to Washington and close to a million in Colorado.
Yet in Oregon — a state with one of the nation's highest rates of pot use and a reputation for pushing the boundaries on marijuana laws — organizers are looking at a bank account with just $1,800.
Marijuana activists who have ploughed big bucks into campaigns in the other two states complain the Oregon measure is poorly written and doesn't poll well. It didn't qualify for the ballot until July, severely limiting the time available to sway voters.
They also don't care for the man with a blemished record who's pushing Oregon's measure.
"That's just the hard, cold reality," said Allen St. Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "They simply do not trust and will not work with the locals there."
Paul Stanford, the 51-year-old chief petitioner behind the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act, dismissed criticism and said the Legislature can clean up any issues with the law after it passes.
As for funding questions, he said it's an advantage that the Oregon measure isn't being pushed by distant interests.
Oregon has been on the leading edge of the decades-long push to loosen marijuana laws. It was the first state to decriminalize small-scale marijuana possession in 1973 and was also among the first to allow medicinal use of marijuana.
The state ranked seventh in the nation for marijuana use among people 12 and older, according to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Colorado ranked third and Washington 11th.
In both those states, lawyers writing the initiatives took pains to incorporate lessons from earlier failures at the ballot box. Based on the results of polling and focus groups, the measures were carefully written to close down criticism that resonates with voters — both have a tough standard for stoned driving, for example, that's unpopular with some activists. Both measures include limits on the amount of marijuana a person can have.
"I really think Colorado and Washington did an excellent job in how they set up their measures in a way that does appeal to mainstream voters," said Sam Chapman, the co-founder of Oregonians for Law Reform.
Oregon voters will be deciding on a far more aggressive change. The state would license growers and buy their weed, which would be sold exclusively through a network of state-run stores. The whole operation would be overseen by a seven-member board, five of whom would be appointed by marijuana growers and processors. There would be no limit on the amount of pot a person could have.
Stanford says he spent $5,000 each on polls in 2008 and 2010 that helped shape his measure, but didn't have the advantage of the sophisticated political research operations that advocates used in Colorado and Washington.
"We see that prohibition has failed and regulation works, and that's what we're trying to do is regulate this market," Stanford said.
Then there's the money problem.
Colorado's financial success has come about because of strong polling and years of work lining up support, said Mason Tvert, head of Colorado's Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. Tvert also helmed a 2006 marijuana legalization measure that failed badly at the polls.
Colorado's campaign had raised almost $1 million through Monday, most of it from the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which gave $830,000.
Proponents in Washington have raised more than $4 million, much of it from Peter Lewis, the retired chief executive of Progressive Insurance; Rick Steves, the author of popular travel guides; and Drug Policy Action. More than $1 million of that was raised last week alone. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has been involved from the beginning.
In Oregon, Stanford bankrolled the bulk of the $350,000 signature-gathering effort to get the measure on the ballot.
Since it qualified, the campaign has raised just $32,000.
Stanford acknowledges that his fundraising struggles stem in part from reports about his financial troubles dating to the mid-1990s.
He's had federal and state tax judgments and at least two bankruptcies. He was sued for more than $38,000 by a marijuana donor who accused him of stealing the money in 1999. For at least three years, he paid off his personal bills with money from his Hemp & Cannabis Foundation, a network of clinics in several states where doctors approve patients for medical marijuana use.
Stanford declined to address the financial issues in his past, saying it wouldn't be helpful to his campaign.
Other Oregon activists are trying to salvage the campaign. Chapman and another marijuana activist set up their own political action committee to promote it outside of Stanford's operation, hoping to attract last-minute donors. They've raised $4,600 and spent about $2,000, according to campaign finance records.
But for now, all bets are on Colorado and Washington to be the first state to legalize pot.
"Those two states probably represent the best possibility of legalizing marijuana, and probably the best until 2016," said Ethan Nadelmann, director of Drug Policy Action, the campaign arm of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance.