SALEM, Oregon (Reuters) - Oregon will soon qualify as the third U.S. state to ask voters in November to legalize marijuana for recreational use in a move that could put the state on a collision course with the federal government, proponents said on Friday.
Backers of the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act said they have collected 165,000 signatures on petitions seeking to put the measure on the ballot, nearly double the 87,000 they were required to submit by Friday's deadline to qualify.
"We believe we're going to make it easily," said Paul Stanford, the chief petitioner and founder of the Hemp and Cannabis Foundation, which runs medical marijuana clinics in several states.
The state has 30 days to verify if enough signatures are valid to qualify any measure for the ballot, said Steve Trout, Oregon elections director. Stanford said some signatures had already been disqualified but believed the rate of validation was high enough for the measure to win a place on the ballot.
If passed by voters in November, the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act would allow marijuana sales in the state to people over age 21, and would create jobs in the hemp industry by allowing it for clothing, food and other uses, the campaign's website said.
Similar ballot measures to legalize marijuana for recreational use already have qualified in Washington state and Colorado, which, like Oregon, already allow marijuana for medical purposes.
No state has legalized pot for recreational use but 17 states and the District of Columbia allow medical cannabis even as marijuana remains classified as an illegal narcotic under federal law.
The Oregon move comes as federal authorities have cracked down on medical marijuana operations in several mostly western states, seeking to shut down storefront dispensaries and greenhouses they deem to be drug-trafficking fronts, as well as those located near schools and parks.
The Obama administration has said it would not single out individual patients who possess or grow their own marijuana in states that allow it. But federal prosecutors have warned they will continue to go after operations that support for-profit, illegal drug dealing under the guise of medical pot.
The Oregon initiative, if passed, would create a Cannabis Commission that could limit the amount of marijuana a person could purchase and would oversee cultivation and retail sales at special marijuana stores. Net proceeds from sale of marijuana would go to the state general fund.
Under the proposal, marijuana possession would be decriminalized although public pot consumption would be prohibited and subject to a fine of $250. The initiative, if passed, would take effect on January 1.
Proponents of legalizing marijuana say prohibition of the drug simply enriches criminal cartels, and that legalizing it will allow law enforcement to focus on serious crimes.
As proponents announced the result of their signature drive outside the state Capitol in Salem, several dozen pro-marijuana protesters held signs reading: "End Prohibition" and "Regulate, Don't Incarcerate."
Sheriff John Trumbo of Oregon's rural Umatilla County, among the staunchest state opponents of recreational legalization, said allowing the drug would open a floodgate of problems - from the expense of providing new training to police to how to deal with people driving under the influence of marijuana.
"Legalizing marijuana will be the downfall of society as we know it," he said. "I've been packing a badge for 40 years and I have seen what marijuana has done to families and individuals. It is a gateway drug."
Trumbo said he was not against medical marijuana when properly prescribed for genuinely ill patients suffering from ailments such as glaucoma or cancer. But if marijuana legalization ultimately is certified for the ballot: "The fight is on, as far as I am concerned."
Tom Parker, spokesman for the substance abuse group Lines for Life, said he also was concerned about greater availability of marijuana to young people.
"Teen brains are still developing," he said. "Greater availability of marijuana is not a good thing for youth."
A competing marijuana legalization proposal would have asked Oregon voters to approve a state constitutional amendment to allow pot. But organizer Bob Wolfe said he expected that effort to fail due to a high number of disqualifications on signatures collected so far.
Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bill Trott