Pubdate: Sat, 27 Jun 2015
Source: Oregonian, The (Portland, OR)
Copyright: 2015 The Oregonian
Author: Jeff Mapes


Is it any worse to sell a teenager a joint than a six-pack of beer?

That question is at the heart of the debate in the Oregon Legislature 
over how far to go in lowering marijuana penalties now that voters 
have approved recreational use of the drug for adults.

Legislation is moving through Salem that would reduce penalties for a 
number of marijuana-related crimes so it is handled more like alcohol 
than an outlaw drug.

"We ought to treat marijuana as we treat beer and wine," says Sen. 
Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, a key supporter of reducing marijuana 
crimes. "We're seeing a change in how this particular substance 
should be viewed and how it would be regulated."

Supporters of lower penalties say they want to move away from a 
war-on-drugs mentality and help marijuana offenders erase previous 
convictions that have made it harder to get jobs, housing and education.

Law enforcement officials and legislators - who are often wary of 
reducing crime sentences  have largely accepted the reductions. But 
Prozanski wasn't able to persuade fellow legislators to drop the 
penalty for furnishing pot to a minor from a felony to a misdemeanor, 
as is the case for alcohol.

"Anything involving a minor is where things get very sensitive," says 
Kevin Campbell, a lobbyist for the Oregon police chiefs, who predicts 
that "we'll still be looking at all of this" for the next several years.

Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany and a retired state cop, negotiated many of 
the changes with Prozanski and agreed to lower the charge for 
providing marijuana to a minor from a Class A felony  the most 
serious category  to a Class C felony, which carries lower penalties 
and is easier for judges to treat as a misdemeanor.

"I couldn't get there right now" to treat giving pot to teenagers the 
same way you do as with booze, Olson says. "We're going to continue 
that discussion in the February session."

The two legislators' handiwork was inserted into House Bill 3400, a 
sweeping marijuana regulatory bill that passed the House Wednesday on 
a 52-4 vote  a sign of how relatively non-controversial the changes 
were. The bill still must clear the Senate.

The legislation also would make it easier for people with marijuana 
convictions to have them cleared from their record.

"We want to make sure it's no longer going to stigmatize them and 
shut a lot of doors that should be open," says Rep. Ann Lininger, 
D-Lake Oswego and co-chair of the marijuana committee. "If a young 
person makes a mistake, we want them to have a second chance."

While Measure 91 contained some sentence reductions, marijuana 
advocates pressed Lininger and her colleagues for additional changes. 
So did the Bus Project, which mobilized young left-of-center 
activists to contact legislators in favor more lenient expungement policies.

"I want people to work where they want to work, live where they want 
to, have a gun if they want to protect themselves," says Justin 
Myers, 27, who helped the Bus Project campaign.

Myers pleaded guilty to a felony marijuana possession charge after he 
after caught with a handful of plants in his closet. He faced more 
serious charges because his younger sister had just moved into his 
Clackamas County mobile home with their father.

Myers, who served four days in jail and was on probation, says he 
drifted from one temporary job to another for years because employers 
often would not consider him because of his felony conviction.

Now he works at a medical marijuana dispensary, one business that 
didn't have an issue with his conviction. And he has adjusted to the 
point that he hasn't wanted to spend the money to hire a lawyer and 
get his conviction cleared.

The impact of drug convictions has hit some communities hard, 
however. Rep. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, one of two African-Americans 
in the Legislature, says he can barely go grocery shopping without 
someone stopping him who want to talk about his work to change the 
approach to drug crimes.

He managed to get some of his wording in HB 3400, which he promoted 
with an impassioned speech.

"Every time marijuana use has been studied it has been found to be 
fairly evenly distributed across not just racial and ethnic 
communities but also across economic circumstances," he told 
colleagues. "Every time incarceration for marijuana offenses has been 
studied it has been shown to be drastically skewed toward communities 
of color and poor communities."

"Whatever the explanations for this may be," Frederick added, "the 
fact is that these laws have turned large numbers of black or brown 
or poor citizens into criminals, while others have toked up in safety 
for decades."

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, who campaigned heavily 
against Measure 91, argues that Oregon had already gone a long way 
toward reducing and even eliminating prison sentences for marijuana 
use. "Most pot crimes could be set aside even before Measure 91 
passed," he says, adding that he was skeptical of the need for 
another big round of reductions.

However, Marquis says he and many other law enforcement officials 
critical of the marijuana initiative didn't think it would be 
productive to lobby the Legislature much on this issue. "I think 
there is an exhaustion factor," he says, adding that he felt like 
"we'd be banging our head against the wall."

Still, Marquis says he is primarily concerned with preserving 
existing penalties for intoxicated driving and for dealing marijuana 
to minors. "Selling dope to high school kids certainly seems like a 
considerably more serious crime" than furnishing them with alcohol, 
he says, citing research showing the danger of marijuana to developing brains.

Crime statistics show that law enforcement is already beginning a 
shift away from marijuana crimes, a move many officials say will 
accelerate as legal pot use becomes commonplace for adults.

Figures from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission showed that just 
55 offenders entered a state prison in 2014 for crimes primarily 
related to marijuana, a small fraction of the more than 14,000 in the 
state corrections system. An additional 98 served local jail 
sentences for marijuana-related crimes.

Arrests for marijuana crimes have also dropped to under 150 a month 
and are now at their lowest since the commission started keeping 
these statistics in 2006, according to research analyst Kelly Officer.

"In my mind, this is a public health problem," says Doug Harcleroad, 
a former Lane County district attorney who now lobbies for the 
district attorneys' association. "My view is we don't need to be 
sucking the cops back in to enforcing marijuana law."



Here is a before and after look at changes in marijuana crimes, 
either through Measure 91 or in legislation moving toward approval in 
Salem. Possession of one ounce in public or eight ounces at home is 
legal as of July 1.

Possession of more than 8 oz.

Before: Class C felony

After: Class A misdemeanor

Unlawful delivery

Before: B felony

After: A misdemeanor

Delivery to minor

Before: A felony

After: C felony

Manufacture by minor

Before: B felony

After: C Felony

Minor possessing over 8 oz.

Before: C felony

After: A misdemeanor
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom