Marijuana and the campaign for attorney general

A couple of issues involving marijuana have arisen in the Democratic primary campaign for Oregon attorney general, and I shall attempt to sort them out here. Some background:

— Oregon was the first state to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana. The 1973 Legislature made possession of less than one ounce punishable as an infraction with a maximum fine of $100. (It’s now a maximum of $1,000.)

— The 1997 Legislature passed a bill to recriminalize simple possession as a misdemeanor. But opponents collected enough signatures to force a statewide election on the measure — which automatically put it on hold — and voters rejected it in November 1998 by a 2 to 1 majority (66.5 percent against the 1997 law).

— Also in the same 1998 election, voters approved a separate ballot initiative to authorize medicinal use of marijuana for specified conditions, with a doctor’s permission. (The majority here was 54.6 percent.) California was the first state to do so in 1996. Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., have such laws; Maryland allows it only as a legal defense, and is not among the 16. Federal law, however, makes no such provision.

— Law enforcement types favored the tougher possession law and opposed the medical-marijuana initiative, but lost on both. The medical-marijuana law has been amended a couple of times by the Legislature, but only after a consensus product was negotiated. Oregon does not allow its sale, unlike California, but patients registered with the state can designate registered caregivers to supply it. Persona limits are 24 ounces and 24 plants (6 mature and 18 immature). Doctors must grant permission, but they do not write “prescriptions.”

Back to the election, which has two candidates in the Democratic primary for the office being vacated by Democrat John Kroger. There is no Republican, and whoever wins the Democratic primary is the odds-on favorite for the Nov. 6 general election, even if there are minor-party candidates on that ballot. The contenders are Dwight Holton, former interim U.S. attorney for Oregon, who has spent 15 years as a federal prosecutor in New York and Portland, and Ellen Rosenblum, also a former federal prosecutor (not at the same time as Holton), a Multnomah County judge and Oregon Court of Appeals judge.

A political committee called Citizens for Sensible Law Enforcement has weighed in against Holton and for Rosenblum, based on a past statement by Holton that the 1998 medical-marijuana law was a “train wreck,” a letter by him to landlords housing offices assisting medical-marijuana patients, and federal raids last fall (while he was the interim U.S. attorney) on state-sanctioned marijuana grow sites.

(The state law is not a legal shield against federal action.)

Here’s a statement from Robert Wolfe, director of Citizens for Sensible Law Enforcement:

(start of Wolfe statement)

“Ellen Rosenblum will support Oregon’s voter-approved medical marijuana program, and says personal marijuana use is the lowest priority for law enforcement. That’s common sense.

“Dwight Holton has called our voter-approved law a ‘train wreck’ and is campaigning on his plan to gut it. Holton is openly disrespectful of Oregon voters, and hostile to medical-marijuana patients and providers. He would be a disaster as attorney general.

“Most voters agree that marijuana law enforcement should be a low priority. Holton used prosecutorial resources to go after state-approved medical marijuana providers. That’s wasteful and unnecessary. That’s just part of why Dwight’s not right for attorney general.

“Judge Ellen Rosenblum brings years of Oregon experience as a prosecutor and a judge, and she supports this key law that Oregonians overwhelmingly support. The choice is clear for supporters of our medical marijuana program or voter-approved initiatives in general.”

(end of Wolfe statement)

The group organized pickets outside the Governor Hotel in Portland, where Holton and Rosenblum appeared Friday at the Portland City Club. (Full disclosure: I had planned to go, but I had some computer problems at the office that delayed my work.)

Now for Holton’s responses, which were furnished by his campaign at my request:

(start of Holton’s furnished material)

On support for Medical Marijuana Act: I will enforce Oregon’s Medical Marijuana Act as attorney general. The voters passed it for a very compassionate reason and it will be my job to uphold the law.

On problems with OMMA: The law should be about meeting the needs of patients — that was voters’ intent when they passed it. I’ve heard two things: One, advocates say that people who need it can’t get it.  And two, law enforcement says that it’s ending up on the black market. If you care about the law, then you also need to protect its integrity.  It should not be used as back-door legalization.  It is on this point that Ellen and I differ.

On Ellen’s comment on her Web site that that “marijuana enforcement will be a low priority”: Ellen says she will make marijuana enforcement a low priority.  She is making a campaign promise not to enforce Oregon’s marijuana laws and that is appalling — especially when you’re running to be attorney general, the state’s top law enforcement officer.

So the choice before voters is someone who will uphold Oregon law – or someone who makes campaign promises not to enforce the law in order to get votes. I don’t believe the AG gets to make unilateral decisions about which laws to enforce and not enforce. The voters and the legislature expect you to uphold all state laws.

(end of Holton’s furnished material)

I should note, as I have in previous coverage, that the district attorneys in Oregon’s 36 counties — not the attorney general — initiate most criminal prosecutions. The Department of Justice, which is led by the attorney general, does have responsibility to assist district attorneys and defend appeals of criminal convictions in trial courts.

See also separate post on Holton’s criticism of Wolfe on a related matter.

— Peter Wong



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