The Oregonian, Saturday, October 4, 1997, p. A1

Petitioners expect to suspend law recriminalizing pot

  • Opponents of HB 3643 turn in almost twice the number of signatures needed to force a 1998 ballot on the new marijuana penalty

    By Ashbel S. Green
    of the Oregonian staff

    Opponents of a law that would recriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana said they turned in plenty of signatures Friday to force a vote on the issue next year.

    Citizens for Sensible Law Enforcement said they turned in 95,032 signatures to the state Elections Division, almost twice as many as the 48,841 valid signatures needed to qualify a referendum for the 1998 general-election ballot and prevent the new law from taking effect today.

    State elections officials have 15 days to verify the signatures, but given the number turned in, it appears almost certain there will be enough.

    "The odds of that thing making the ballot are quite favorable," said Scott Tighe, state elections operations manger.

    That would give Oregonians the chance to vote on a marijuana-related ballot measure for the first time since 1986.

    "There's a lot of jargon about being tough on crime. But you also have to be smart," said Rep. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene.

    Marijuana: Campaign cost about $100,000

    Scarce money for law enforcement should be directed at violent criminals, he said. "The reality is we don't have unlimited resources."

    But supporters of recriminalization were disappointed that House Bill 3643 probably will be suspended until the election.

    "I understand the cost argument, but we have no bigger problem than drug use," said Rep. Ben Westlund, R-Bend, a sponsor of the bill. "There is no higher cost to our society."

    The referendum petition, submitted less than a year after California and Arizona voters liberalized marijuana laws, puts Oregon in the middle of a lively national debate about drug policy.

    The idea of liberalizing drug laws has been discussed for years on late-night cable television programs and in magazines such as The National Review and The Nation. But the debate reached mainstream America in 1996 when several wealthy businessmen provided money to run professional campaigns for ballot measures that legalized marijuana for medical use.

    Those men - including George Soros, an international financier; Peter Lewis, an Ohio insurance executive; and John Sperling, a Phoenix entrepreneur - financed the estimated $100,000 campaign to gather signatures for the Oregon referendum.

    Next month, Washington voters will decide on a medical marijuana measure financed mostly by Lewis and Sperling. With support from several other businessmen, similar measures are expected to appear on state ballots, including Oregon's, in 1998.

    The last time marijuana appeared on the Oregon ballot, voters overwhelmingly rejected an initiative to legalize its possession and growth for personal use.

    The latest effort would have voters decide whether to maintain the status quo.

    Since 1973, possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana has been a violation, which carries a $500 to $1,000 fine but no jail time.

    A violation is similar to an infraction such as speeding or running a stop sign. A police officer can write a ticket but not make an arrest. But the 1997 Legislature approved HB3643, which would raise possession of less than 1 ounce to a Class C misdemeanor. Conviction for a Class C misdemeanor could result in a maximum fine of $1,000 and maximum jail time of 30 days, although the bill would allow diversion instead of jail on the first offense.

    An ounce is about enough to fill a standard plastic sandwich bag, according to Portland police.

    Westlund and Prozanski cited personal experiences during the debate in the Legislature.

    Westlund was arrested in 1982 for drunken driving and cocaine possession, ironically by a police officer who is now a state legislator and a sponsor of HB3643: Rep. John Minnis, R-Wood Village. Westlund, a rancher and part-owner of a minor-league baseball team, said the arrest turned his life around.

    "One of the best things that ever happened to me in my life was Officer Minnis arresting me for drug possession," Westlund said. But if Westlund had been smoking a joint on the corner, Minnis could only have written him a ticket. HB3643 would allow police to arrest marijuana smokers and give them the option of entering diversion to avoid jail time and a criminal conviction.

    When Prozanski was in high school in Texas, his sister's drug dealing boyfriend murdered her. But Prozanski, a municipal prosecutor in Lane County, said a $500 to $1,000 fine is more than adequate to deter marijuana use without further clogging a congested court system. Prozanski said when voters in 1994 approved tougher sentences for violent criminals, they sent a clear message about their priorities. "We're losing sight of what we should be focusing on," he said.

    Neither Westlund nor Prozanski was involved in the referendum campaign, which has raised about $100,000. Supporters of the recriminalization law face a more difficult fund-raising task.

    Darin Campbell, a lobbyist for the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police, said he is trying to persuade Oregon businesses to put up money to fight the referendum and other potential ballot measures liberalizing drug laws.


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