The Oregonian, Tuesday, August 12, 1997

New marijuana law aids police

SALEM (AP) - Much of the debate over recriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana overlooked a facet of the bill that broadens police search-and-seizure powers.

Legal experts say this aspect of the law is ripe for court challenges. Cannabis advocates say they already have 10,000 signatures of registered voters in an attempt to block the measure's enactment and put it on the ballot.

Gov. John Kitzhaber reluctantly signed the legislation in July after it easily cleared the state House and Senate.

Beginning Oct. 4, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor criminal offense, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Kitzhaber thinks recriminalizing marijuana will have little bearing on marijuana use.

"I think this law is more about search and seizure than it is about marijuana use," the governor said. "If someone has less than an ounce of marijuana, they have the opportunity to conduct a search. And in the process, they may discover individuals who may be involved in more serious types of criminal activity."

In 1973, Oregon became the first state to remove criminal sanctions for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana.

Meanwhile, Oregon courts have narrowed police ability to conduct searches.

Because possessing less than an ounce is not criminal conduct under current Oregon law, a police officer who finds someone with a small amount of marijuana generally can not search that person's vehicle, body or home.

But marijuana will be treated like any other drug once the law takes effect, allowing broader searches.

The state public defender's office plans to challenge the law.

"I think defense lawyers will make arguments that it doesn't apply," said Diane Alessi, assistant state public defender, "It does concern me. I'm not sure the citizens want to give the police that power."

The law also extends Oregon's asset forfeiture laws.

"Technically, they can take your home for less than an ounce of pot," said state Sen. Bill Dwyer, D-Springfield, who opposed the legislation.

But Oregon State Police Lt. Gregg Hastings said authorities are not looking to abuse the new law.

"People have to trust the police officers that work in this state," he said. "It's an unwarranted fear that we would be pursuing forfeiture" over small amounts of marijuana.

Pro-marijuana groups, including the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Portland's American Anti-Prohibition League, must submit 48,841 signatures before Oct. 4 to stop the law's enactment until after the 1998 general election.

"It's a delicate balance between the legitimate need for law enforcement to have the tools necessary to protect public safety and protecting the individual civil liberties of our citizens," Kitzhaber said.


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