National Public Radio, "Morning Edition," Friday, October 3, 1997

Recriminalizing Marijuana in Oregon

BYLINE: Ley Garnett, Portland, OR; Bob Edwards, Washington, DC

HIGHLIGHT: Ley Garnett reports Oregon lawmakers have reversed themselves and voted to make possession of marijuana a crime, overturning a 1973 law that made the state the first in the nation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug.


BOB EDWARDS, HOST: This is MORNING EDITION. I'm Bob Edwards. In 1973, Oregon became the first state in the union to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Several other states eventually followed suit. But Oregon's legislature has voted to change the law, making possession of marijuana a crime.

That move has triggered a quick reaction. Today, opponents of recriminalizing marijuana will submit petitions signed by 90,000 voters, calling for a public referendum on the matter. From Oregon Public Broadcasting, Ley Garnett reports.

LEY GARNETT, OREGON PUBLIC BROADCASTING REPORTER: The momentum to roll back the Oregon law started in 1994, when for the first time in 40 years, conservative Republicans gained control of both houses of the state legislature. In 1995, a recriminalization bill died on the last day of the session.

This year, the movement gained steam when a statewide survey of high school students showed a jump in their use of marijuana, as well as alcohol and other drugs. The bill drew strong support from state police organizations, including Portland police chief Charles Moose. At a legislative hearing, Chief Moose said the state's marijuana law was interfering with anti-drug programs aimed at youths.

CHARLES MOOSE, CHIEF, PORTLAND POLICE DEPARTMENT: We tell them that cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine are serious drugs that shouldn't be used; that there are serious consequences. And then somehow the message is: if you use marijuana, it is a lesser hazard; that somehow it's acceptable.

GARNETT: The other argument that resonated with legislators was that marijuana opens the door to harder drugs. Randy Miller is a Republican state senator who represents a district in suburban Portland.

RANDY MILLER (R), SENATOR, OREGON STATE SENATE: Well, an awful lot of people who have studied drug problems, drug usage, have declared that marijuana is the gateway drug, and it is the beginning of irresponsible behavior. It is the beginning of the use, many times, of other more potent drugs, more dangerous drugs.

GARNETT: Opponents to recriminalizing pot argue just the opposite - that there's no connection between marijuana laws and use of the drug. But in the end, the bill passed both houses of the Oregon legislature by more than a two to one majority.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, who waited until the last day possible to sign the bill into law, said he was concerned about whether it might be selectively enforced and how much it would cost to implement.

Foes of the new bill then began circulating a petition to refer the new law to the ballot, which was floundering until recently. One event that seemed to shift the debate was a Portland police raid on a medical marijuana club that had operated openly since January. The Portland raid provoked new interest in Oregon's marijuana ordinances.


SINGER: It's not like we're getting high on the street I'm not even here for me I'm here for the sick.

GARNETT: Pot advocates demonstrated against the police action, and circulated petitions to block the new law.

MARIJUANA ADVOCATE: Have you signed the recriminalization petition? This is to allow the Oregon voters to vote on this, rather than the governor ramming it down our throats.

GARNETT: Another boost for opponents of recriminalization came with a $50,000 contribution from multi-billionaire George Soros, and the support of Americans for Medical Rights. That's the new name for the political organization which ran the successful campaigns for medical marijuana in California and Arizona. Bill Zimmerman is a political consultant with the group.

BILL ZIMMERMAN, POLITICAL CONSULTANT, AMERICANS FOR MEDICAL RIGHTS: We think it would be a very dangerous precedent for Oregon to go back on the 25 years of experience in decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, and that it could lead to a very negative trend across the country.

GARNETT: The Oregon secretary of state's office will have to review the petitions to be sure there's enough valid signatures to force a referendum in November of 1998. In the meantime, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in Oregon would continue as a civil penalty treated like a traffic offense.

For NPR News, I'm Ley Garnett in Portland, Oregon.



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