Oregon Legislature Ends 24 Years Of Marijuana Decriminalization

Governor John Kitzhaber (D) signed legislation at the eleventh hour last night that recriminalizes the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. A press statement released today from the governor admits that he signed the measure “with a good deal of reluctance.”

House Bill 3643 increases the penalty for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana from a non-criminal “violation” to a class C misdemeanor crime. Under the new law, individuals would be arrested and, if convicted, could face up to 30 days in jail, a $1,000 fine, and loss of their driving privileges for six months.

Passage of the bill came despite a strong effort from NORML and other national and local drug-law reform organizations. NORML Executive Director R. Keith Stroup led a task-force opposing H.B. 3643 that conducted field polling and organized opposition in an attempt to convince the governor to veto the legislation. State reform groups, including Portland NORML, first attempted to stop the measure in the Legislature and subsequently conducted a telephone campaign to persuade Gov. Kitzhaber to kill the measure. Kitzhaber acknowledged many of NORML’s concerns when expressing his reluctance to sign the new law.

“The difficult question raised by this legislation … is the delicate balance between the public safety of our society at large and the civil liberties of it’s individual citizens,” Kitzhaber explained in a released statement. “I am willing to give this legislation the benefit of the doubt, but I will direct the Criminal Justice Commission to closely monitor how it is being implemented and what effect it is having. … If … the measure proves to be ineffective — or if it is used for such purposes as harassment rather than for legitimate law enforcement objectives — then it should be repealed and we should return to current law.”

Kitzhaber further remarked that he felt most law enforcement agents would continue to treat marijuana possession cases as violations. In this respect, he said that “this measure has less to do with the possession of marijuana as it does with expanding the powers of search and seizure,” a position which Kitzhaber favors.

NORML Executive Director R. Keith Stroup strongly criticized the adoption of the new law. “This law will cost Oregonians millions in already scarce law enforcement resources that should be focused on violent crime, broadly expand the powers of law enforcement and reduce the privacy rights of citizens, and needlessly criminalize tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding adult Oregonians who smoke marijuana.

“Nearly one-third of Americans live in states which have now had a 15-20 year real-world experience with marijuana decriminalization, and the experience has been overwhelmingly favorable. Contrary to fears expressed by some, marijuana usage rates are virtually the same in states that have decriminalized in states where marijuana smokers are still arrested. Moreover, research fails to demonstrate any change in attitudes in marijuana use among young people in decriminalized states.

Stroup added, “Otherwise law abiding citizens who smoke marijuana are not part of the crime problem and it is both fiscally wasteful and needlessly harmful to treat them as if they were.”

Oregon was the first state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1973. Presently, marijuana decriminalization laws remain in effect in California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, and Ohio. Individuals found possessing small amounts of marijuana in these states receive a traffic-like citation and must pay a small fine.

For more information, please contact either R. Keith Stroup of NORML at (202) 483-5500 or Terry Miller of Portland NORML at (503) 777-9088.