Marijuana proponents on Friday blocked the Oregon Legislature's move to make the possession of small amounts of cannabis a criminal offense.
The legislation, approved this summer, would have become a law today.
But a pro-marijuana group submitted to the secretary of state nearly double the required signatures of registered voters to prevent district attorneys from prosecuting persons for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana.
The action, provided for within the framework of the initiative process, delays implementation of the law until the outcome of the vote, November 1998.
Elections officials think Citizens for Responsible Law Enforcement has enough valid signatures to place the measure on the ballot.
So Oregon, which 24 years ago was the first state to decriminalize marijuana, will continue to treat the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana as an infraction akin to a traffic violation until voters decide the issue.
"I think Oregonians want a chance to decide this issue for themselves," said Scott Olsen, the co-chief petitioner, as he turned over to the secretary of state more than 90,000 signatures.
Gov. John Kitzhaber, who was unsure whether the law would reduce marijuana use, reluctantly signed House Bill 3643 after it easily cleared both legislative chambers.
Co-author of the bill, Rep. Ben Westlund, R-Bend, thinks the measure would have cut down drug use.
"Obviously, I believe in the legislation. I am disappointed that the law is going to be held in abeyance," he said.
If the electorate repeals the law next year, the freshman representative would not propose the measure again.
If the voters speak to an issue, I consider that next to sacred," Westlund said.
If enacted today, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana would have been a misdemeanor criminal offense, punishable by 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
That conviction would remain on an offender's record.
The new law, since it criminalized small amounts of marijuana, would have expanded law enforcement's power's of search and seizure.
Because possessing less than an ounce is not criminal conduct under current Oregon statute, law enforcement in most cases is prohibited from searching a person's vehicle, body or home for more drugs, weapons or other illegal activity.
If the bill were enacted, marijuana would be treated like any other drug and would have allowed law enforcement to proceed with more in-depth searches and seizures.
Under the new law, for example, authorities could seize property - such as cars, boats and houses where marijuana was found. In 1973, Oregon became the first state to remove criminal sanctions for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. It is considered an infraction with a maximum $1,000 fine.
The momentum to reinstate harsher penalties in Oregon started in 1994, when, for the first time in 40 years, Republicans gained control of both houses of the Legislature.
In 1995 a recriminalization bill died on the last day of the session.
This year the movement gained steam when a statewide survey showed an increase in use of marijuana and other drugs by high school students.
The bill gained strong support from the law enforcement lobby, which said the state's lenient marijuana law was interfering with anti-drug programs aimed at youths.
"It's obviously the right of the people to put it on the ballot," said Darin Campbell, spokesman for the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police. "It looks like an agenda of pro-marijuana people as a first attempt to legalize marijuana down the road."
After the measure's passage, Oregon's veteran marijuana activists began a drive to block its enactment and allow voters to decide the issue next year.
But that drive, by the Real Joint Ways and Means Committee, was floundering. A group backed by billionaire George Soros was formed five weeks ago.
The second group, Citizens for a Responsible Law Enforcement, raised $100,000 in a month. Paid signature gatherers fanned across the state, and the group won backing from Americans for Medical Rights, the political organization which ran the successful campaigns for medical marijuana in Arizona and California.
Scott Tighe, operations manager for the secretary of state, said no petition drive had ever submitted nearly double the number of required signatures. Tighe has 15 days to verify that 49,000 of the signatures are valid to force a referendum next year.
"I'm confident that they will make it to the ballot," Tighe said.
In the meantime, possession of less than an ounce will continue to be an infraction.
"John Brown," who originally typed and posted this article, included the staff editorial from the same day's Statesman Journal. Caveat - his criticisms, in the next paragraph, of the paper's factual errors are accurate, but could go a lot farther. The paper's editorial is included below not for its historical information but as part of the historical record itself, just to illustrate the fantastic ignorance your average Oregon editor brings to the topic. - Portland NORML
There are some inaccuracies here. Decrim. happened in 1973- $100 fine. They are wrong about downgrading in 1993. The fine was increased under Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, but it remained a violation. It had to have been a few years before 1993 as Roberts was Gov. at that time! Also it does not liberalize the law, it blocks it. You think they would learn to read and write. - "John Brown"
Oregonians Get A Chance To End Or Restore Marijuana Law
A 24-year experiment was supposed to end today.
Oregon has treated possession of small amounts of marijuana about the same as a traffic violation.
That changed this spring when the Oregon Legislature passed a bill, signed by Gov. John Kitzhaber, that made possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a crime punishable by a maximum 30-day jail term.
The new law was supposed to go into effect today, but implementation has been blocked by a referendum largely financed by out-of-state activists.
On Friday, Citizens for a Sensible Law Enforcement turned in 90,000 petition signatures to the State Elections Division - well above the 48,841 valid signatures needed to stop the law from taking effect pending a vote in November 1998.
It seemed inevitable that opponents would seek to overturn the new law; we're only surprised they did it so quickly.
But unless state elections officials find an unusually high number of invalid signatures, Oregonians will vote next year on what should be the appropriate police response to marijuana use.
Law enforcement experts produce statistics showing that marijuana is a gateway drug to more serious narcotics and that a crackdown would save lives. The other side argues that focusing on marijuana enforcement is costly, ineffective, clogs up the judicial system and diverts law enforcement from more serious crimes.
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that society's attitude toward marijuana and other drugs has ranged from intolerance to acceptance - and everything in between.
In 1973, the pendulum swung in one direction when Oregon became the first state to end criminal penalties for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana.
Five initiative campaigns to legalize marijuana failed in the past decade, but advocates continued to make progress in the Legislature. In 1993, lawmakers downgraded possession of small amounts of marijuana to a civil violation, with a maximum fine of $1,000.
The conservative turnaround began a year later, when Republicans took control of both the Oregon House and Senate and began pushing for tougher penalties against marijuana. They succeeded this year because of strong support from law enforcement - and studies showed rising substance use among juveniles.
But within a few months, marijuana supporters gathered enough signatures to block the law. They were helped by sizable donations from three out-of-state businessmen. One, billionaire George Soros, bankrolled successful campaigns last year that legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes in Arizona and California.
We are troubled by the fact that outsiders have pushed Oregon to this point. We would have preferred that Oregon settle its own issues.
But now Oregonians will have to decide whether locking up marijuana users is a waste of time and money or a necessary strategy in the war on drugs.
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