SALEM — Two of Oregon’s best-known public officials engaged Friday in a lively debate about whether Oregon should join Washington and Colorado in legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
Their arguments about Measure 91, which voters will decide Nov. 4, did not break new ground during their hour-long appearance before almost 150 attendees at the Salem City Club.
Speaking for it was U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who has advocated change in federal drug policies. Speaking against it was Josh Marquis, Clatsop County district attorney, who also opposed a different legalization measure that Oregon voters rejected in 2012, and related measures in 2004 and 2010.
Measure 91 designates the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to regulate cultivation and tax sales, which would start in mid-2016 at the earliest.
Alaska also will vote on a legalization measure.
Pro: ‘Failed Prohibition’
Blumenauer was a 24-year-old Democratic state representative from Portland in 1973, when he voted for a law that made Oregon the first state to decriminalize possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.
The bill’s floor manager was then-Rep. Stafford Hansell, a Republican from Eastern Oregon.
Possession became a traffic-type infraction punishable by a maximum fine of $100. Lawmakers raised the maximum to $1,000 in 1989, although the full amount is rarely levied.
Now Blumenauer says Oregon should follow Washington and Colorado in regulating its cultivation and taxing its sales.
“We are wasting your tax dollars on failed Prohibition, and most dangerously, we are failing to protect our children from it,” Blumenauer said in reference to the nationwide ban on alcohol sales between 1919 and 1933.
“They get it being exposed to black market (dealers) who are happy to sell them things that might hook them for life or that will kill them.”
Possession and use of the drug by minors under age 21 would remain illegal. Personal possession would be limited to 8 ounces and four plants.
Blumenauer says he has never smoked marijuana.
Con: Current law is right
Marquis says “I did inhale” in the early 1970s, when he was a student at the University of Oregon — and when marijuana was significantly less potent than it is today.
But he said lawmakers did the right thing in 1973 at the behest of then-Lane County District Attorney Pat Horton, who Marquis describes as a mentor, and who was his first boss.
“We’re talking about a state that led the country — led by a prosecutor, in a job like mine — 40 years ago,” he said. “Possessing less than an ounce of marijuana does not cause you to lose your job or go to jail.”
Lawmakers voted in 1997 to recriminalize possession as a low-level misdemeanor, but opponents petitioned to put it on the ballot in 1998. Marquis says district attorneys recognized that voters would reject it — and they did, at the same time they approved marijuana for medical use.
Measure 91 would not change a 2010 ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court, which held that workers can be fired for drug use even if they hold medical-marijuana cards.
Measure 91 would not change the medical-marijuana law, which lawmakers have amended a few times. As of July, there were about 65,000 cardholders, the majority of which qualify for “severe pain.”
Effects on enforcement
Marquis and Blumenauer argued about the extent of marijuana-related offenses and their effect on Oregon law enforcement.
Marquis said of around 12,000 offenses annually, 10,000 are classified as traffic-type infractions, and prosecutors will rarely go after marijuana cases unless they involve sales to minors.
Of the 14,600 inmates in state prisons, he says, only about 1,000 are held for all types of drug crimes, mostly sales of harder drugs such as heroin or methamphetamine.
As for the new money that Measure 91 will designate for law enforcement, Marquis says, “we will get zero” because of the lack of marijuana-related cases.
But Measure 91 advocates say Oregon’s law enforcement net is far wider, and Blumenauer says the current situation encourages people to obtain marijuana from dealers without knowing who they are or what quality they are getting.
“We are breeding disrespect for the law,” he says. “It undermines the credibility of our antidrug efforts.”
Blumenauer says states should be free to decide how to regulate marijuana, just as the repeal of national Prohibition in 1933 did for alcohol.
“I am convinced in the next 10 years, this (regulatory) model is going to be adopted across the country,” he says.
Marquis says he thinks it’s time for the federal government to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I, a list of drugs without recognized medical uses. “It clearly does have some medical uses,” such as pain relief, he says.
He acknowledged that as a prosecutor, “the most dangerous drug I deal with is alcohol.”
But he also questioned whether it is wise to legalize yet another drug alongside alcohol, tobacco and numerous medications, particularly a drug that affects still-developing teenage brains.
Blumenauer says how Oregon should deal with marijuana ought to follow the public-health response to tobacco use after the 1964 federal report linking cigarette smoking to cancer.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, adult smoking has dropped from 42.4 percent in 1965 to 19 percent in 2011 — and teenage use from 27.5 percent in 1991, the first year it was measured, to 18.1 percent in 2011. In Oregon, smoking rates are around 16 percent.
“That’s the way we can and should deal with marijuana,” he says.
Although the official political committees for and against Measure 91 have not reported raising or spending any money, New Approach Oregon PAC — which bankrolled the effort to qualify Measure 91 for the ballot — has reserved $2 million for broadcast ads in the fall.
Virtually all of the money for Measure 91 has been raised from outside Oregon — something Marquis questions.
“Why is it not OK for Monica Wehby (Republican U.S. Senate candidate) to bring millions of dollars in ‘dark money’ in from the Koch brothers — I think most of us are affronted by that — but yet millions of dollars from out of state roll in to fund Measure 91?”