THE BLAZER STATE | Why Oregon’s cannabis cred runs so deep

Sam Laird
Mar 5, 2019

Oregon just might be America’s cannabis capital.

When Oregon residents voted in 2014 to legalize recreational marijuana use, the state followed Washington and Colorado to join a burgeoning national movement. But don’t get it twisted. Oregon isn’t just another state with legal weed.

Rather, Oregon has legitimate claim to being the American state when it comes to cannabis.

[SEE ALSO: Eaze launches on-demand cannabis delivery in Portland]

Oregon’s record on progressive cannabis legislation actually goes back to the early 1970s. But we aren’t here simply to rehash governmental machinations: The Beaver State’s cannabis cred is something much more ephemeral, and much more powerful, than a rote recitation of bills and laws.

There’s a culture, a feeling — an iconoclastic, freewheeling soul — that’s central to the Oregonian DNA. This overarching spirit exists independent of — yet is simultaneously inseparable from — the state’s relationship to cannabis. It’s illustrated through state icons and historic events alike.

[Photo by Scott Oller]
We’re dealing with the home of a driving force behind the 1960s counterculture that reshaped America. It’s a place whose biggest professional sports hero is perhaps the most iconic stoner athlete ever. It’s a state whose history boasts an event known as “The Governor’s Pot Party” — a shindig thrown by a Republican, no less.

But we’ll get to all that soon. First, we have to go back. Way back. For cannabis and Oregon share a history that extends to the state’s earliest origins.

A mysterious frontier.

“Cannabis products arrived in Oregon with the first white immigrants, many of whom came in wagons covered by hemp canvas,” Nick Johnson, author of Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West, wrote in a 2017 retrospective. “It’s unclear when medicinal or drug cannabis first arrived, but by the late nineteenth century, medicinal cannabis tinctures were available in Oregon pharmacies.”

One can just imagine the wonder felt by frontier covered-wagoners upon reaching the Oregon Territory after crossing barren Midwestern prairie. Here was a land of natural bounty, with a hospitable climate, populated by millions of lofty conifer trees. Many of these same features, as it happens, would make parts of the state prime cannabis-growing terrain in the following century.

By the 1960s, though, Oregon was a frontier of a different sort. It was shortly after graduating from the University of Oregon in 1957 that Springfield native Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, his classic novel that remains a testament to the struggle of individual expression in a rigid society.

“I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer, but they think they have. So they stop thinking,” Kesey once said, in a quote that was effectively an ethos for the generation he inspired. “But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.”

After publishing Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, Kesey spent time with a proto-hippy outfit known as the Merry Pranksters, roving the country in a converted school bus called FURTHUR. He also helped mentor a California band named The Warlocks, which would later become famous as The Grateful Dead. Kesey was arrested twice for marijuana possession in California during the mid-60s, then returned home to Oregon, where he lived until his death in 2001.

‘They can’t bust you for writing a book, can they?’

A 1966 talk by Timothy Leary at Portland State University and repeat visits by The Grateful Dead helped make Oregon a counterculture capital as the 20th century wore on. In the late 60s, though, that movement was still locked in battle with establishment forces.

An Oregonian named Bill Drake wrote a seminal work called the Cultivator’s Handbook of Marijuana, said to be the first grow manual of its kind, over the course of 1968 and 1969. Growing guides are a dime a dozen today, yet Drake was operating in a much different climate.

Decades later, Drake recounted the book’s origins in a blog post: “A good friend and I were sitting on the banks of the McKenzie River outside of Eugene, toking on some fine bud and discussing cosmic ideas and I was telling her how much I regretted not being able to pursue my botanical interests when she said, ‘Why don’t you write a book about growing? They can’t bust you for writing a book, can they?'”

No, “they” couldn’t. But that didn’t stop “them” from making things difficult.

Drake’s work won fans including the Beat legend Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Yet finding a someone to print the handbook proved difficult; Drake was tailed by FBI agents whom he also suspected of bugging his phone. He persevered, however, found a printer and remains an outspoken cannabis advocate.

The Governor’s Pot Party.

August of 1970 saw the event that perhaps best summarizes Oregonians’ attitude toward weed. President Richard Nixon was scheduled to appear in support of the Vietnam War at an American Legion event in Portland. With antipathy toward the war running high, many observers reasonably expected protests and potentially violent clashes to ensue.

Republican Governor Tom McCall’s innovative response? A free, state-sponsored rock and roll festival located just outside Portland and scheduled for the same weekend.

McCall’s staff even put out word that law enforcement would turn a “blind eye” to nudity and marijuana use at the festival, according to the Oregon Historical Society. The festival, called Vortex I, was a well-attended affair that successfully helped defuse a potentially volatile situation. It’s since become known in Oregon lore as “The Governor’s Pot Party.”

But it was not without angst for McCall, a Republican up for re-election in November 1970. He’s said to have lamented as the election neared that he’d committed “political suicide” by sanctioning the festival.

Instead, McCall won a second term easily.

Three years later, in 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize possession of personal-use cannabis quantities. Rather than facing jail time, those caught with up to an ounce were hit with a simple fine. In 1998, Oregon voters approved medical cannabis. In 2014, they voted in favor of recreational use.

The Blazer State?

Even Oregon’s most famous sports franchise comes with a side of stoniness.

The Portland Trail Blazers, Oregon’s only pro sports team, won their sole NBA championship in 1977. The team’s star that season was a seven-foot redheaded center named Bill Walton, known for sporting groovy headbands, long hair and a shaggy beard. Walton won the NBA Finals MVP in 1977, and in 1978 was named NBA MVP.

He’s still the only Trail Blazers player to win either award.

Fittingly for Oregon, however, The Beaver State’s biggest pro sports hero isn’t just famous for his athletic exploits. Walton is equally well-known for his longtime status as a Deadhead and his hearty support of marijuana legalization. As a college star at UCLA, Walton even reportedly convinced iconic Bruins coach John Wooden to let him smoke pot as a means of relaxation.

The Trail Blazers’ connection to marijuana doesn’t end with Walton. In July 2003, star point guard and Portland native Damon Stoudamire was arrested at an airport after trying to pass through a metal detector with about half an ounce wrapped in aluminum foil. The year prior, Stoudamire and teammate Rasheed Wallace were cited for marijuana possession following a traffic stop.

Even as recently as the early 2000s, mainstream America had a much different attitude toward cannabis. But former Trail Blazers teammate Antonio Harvey put things in perspective during an interview with Willamette Week last year.

“They got in trouble for smoking weed,” Harvey said of Stoudamire and Wallace. “Well, everybody smokes weed in Oregon.”

Oregon’s only team is called the Trail Blazers in a nod to the state’s pioneer history. Their home white jerseys, however, read simply “Blazers” across the chest.

In a state with cannabis roots as deep as Oregon’s, that couldn’t possibly be more perfect.

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