By Shelby Sebens
PORTLAND Ore. (Reuters) - Supporters of a voter initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Oregon said they submitted more than enough signatures to state election officials on Thursday to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
Only two U.S. states, Washington and Colorado, currently allow recreational marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law, while voters in Alaska are slated to vote on legalization in November.
In heavily Democratic Oregon, where voters rejected legalization two years ago, New Approach Oregon said it turned in 145,710 signatures to the Secretary of State's Office on Thursday afternoon, well above the 87,213 needed to qualify.
"We've verified many of the signatures ourselves and we will indeed qualify for the ballot," New Approach Oregon spokesman Anthony Johnson told reporters in Portland shortly before the signatures were submitted in Salem, the state capital.
The Oregon proposal is similar to measures approved by voters in Colorado and Washington state in 2012 to legalize the drug and create regulated retail markets that could reap tax revenue for the states.
The Oregon measure, if passed, would legalize recreational marijuana for those 21 and older and authorize the state Liquor Control Commission to regulate growers, processors and retailers of the drug.
Although marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the U.S. Department of Justice has said it will give states space to regulate and tax the drug if they meet certain core benchmarks, such as keeping it away from minors and preventing it from crossing state lines.
Oregon decriminalized pot possession in the 1970s. In 1998, it became one of the first U.S. states to sanction medical marijuana, although its estimated 200 dispensaries operated in a legal gray zone until state lawmakers passed a law last year to regulate them.
Oregonians rejected a legal marijuana ballot measure in 2012, and lawmakers during the last session declined to put the issue to a vote.
Kevin Sabet, co-founder of the national anti-marijuana group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, criticized the Oregon campaign for being propped up by big money.
New Approach has pulled in hundreds of thousands of dollars in out-of-state contributions, according to the Secretary of State’s Office, far surpassing the fundraising for the 2012 Oregon ballot measure.
"What this is about in Oregon is money," Sabet said.
Tony Green, a spokesman for the Oregon Secretary of State's Office, said the state had until August to validate the signatures.
(Reporting by Shelby Sebens; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis)