Why The Oregon Attorney General Race Has National Implications For Marijuana Laws
May 10, 2012
Simon Owens, U.S. News & World Report
Meeting Jim Greig, you wouldn't guess he's a prominent member of Oregon's medical marijuana activist community.
The 62-year-old suffers from Ankylosing Spondylitis, a severe form of rheumatoid arthritis. Greig was diagnosed with the disease in the 1980s when he was 38. At the time he ran an advertising agency, helping to put on more than 150 shows for singers such as Alice Cooper, Tom Petty, and Peter Gabriel. As a self-employed individual, he hadn't bothered to buy health insurance, so when his knee began to give out repeatedly he was forced to pay out-of-pocket to visit emergency rooms.
"It started in my right knee, and in six months it spread to my other knee," he says. "I went from a crutch to a double crutch to a wheelchair within about six to eight months." He's been confined to a wheelchair ever since. He estimates that he is bedridden "80 to 90 percent of the time." Blind in one eye, Greig speaks in a deep, gravely voice, pausing every few moments to catch his breath.
Greig began using marijuana to alleviate his pain sometime around 1995. "It's a great relief," he says. "Cannabis will relax you in ways that no opiate will, and will make it seem like the pain is less intense. Because of it I can do half the amount of opiates and feel better doing it."
He became part of the medical marijuana rights movement when he moved back to Oregon from California in 2004. For the last seven years he has organized the Eugene chapter of the Global Marijuana March, a worldwide event that takes place in hundreds of cities. He's been a board member of the Voter Power Foundation, a medical marijuana activism organization, for about five years. Two years ago, he co-directed a political action committee that advocated for Measure 74, an Oregon ballot initiative that would have permitted the creation of privately-owned, non-profit medical marijuana dispensaries. The measure failed in 2010.
It's no surprise then that Greig knew who Dwight Holton was when Holton announced earlier this year he was running for Oregon Attorney General to replace departing Democrat John Kroger. Holton had been interim U.S. Attorney for Oregon when federal agents executed search warrants on several marijuana farms in the state last fall. That and other actions from his office had irked medical marijuana and pro-legalization activists, including Greig, so Greig posted a message to a listserv of about 300 other activists suggesting that they begin publicly opposing Holton's candidacy.
Other prominent activists quickly reached out to him, and soon afterward they launched a full-scale attack on Holton, one that has gained the attention of national pro-legalization and medical marijuana activists, several of whom are supporting Holton's opponent, Ellen Rosenblum. A former Oregon Court of Appeals judge, Rosenblum will face off against him in the Democratic primary next Tuesday. No Republican has entered the race, so the winner of the primary will determine the November outcome.
Oregon has a long and storied history with marijuana. In 1973, the legislature voted to make possession of less than an ounce of pot an infraction with a maximum fine of $100. The legislature then tried to reclassify simple possession as a misdemeanor in 1997, only for voters to reject it in a 1998 ballot initiative. That same year, a majority of voters approved another ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, making Oregon one of the first states to do so (this initiative became what is now called the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act). Unlike some states—California, for instance—Oregon does not allow the sale of medical marijuana, but rather allows those granted permission to either grow pot for themselves or designate others to grow it for them.
However, those caregivers are allowed to recoup the cost of growing the marijuana, which has created a legal gray area making it difficult for law enforcement to differentiate between caregivers and sellers of pot. "The problem is the law is so vague, there are so many loopholes," Mark McDonnell, a drug prosecutor in Multnomah County, Oregon, told an Oregonian reporter. He referred to medical marijuana dispensaries in his county as "quasi-legal." There are currently about 55,000 medical marijuana patients in the state.
Holton, 46, is the son of Kinwood Holton, a former Republican governor in Virginia, and the brother-in-law of Tim Kaine, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and former Virginia governor. He moved to Oregon in 2002 from New York, where he had served as a federal prosecutor. "[My wife and I] were tired of living in a place where it took an hour to get out of the city when you wanted to go to the ocean or go into the mountains," he says. After moving out west, he began teaching at the Lewis & Clark Law School for a year and a half before joining the U.S. Attorney's office in Oregon (he's still an adjunct professor). In 2010, he was appointed interim U.S. Attorney until October of last year. Holton's candidacy has been endorsed by 56 Oregon sheriffs and district attorneys and two major state teacher's unions.
Holton says he's a firm supporter of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, which he calls a "compassionate" law that he will enforce and protect if he becomes Attorney General. He thinks the campaign against him from activists and Rosenblum is "much ado about nothing." What he opposes, he says, are those who abuse the state law to funnel marijuana into the black market.
Opponents point to three actions when citing reasons for opposing him. The first is a letter he sent to dozens of establishments he suspected were selling pot. "In June of 2011, I joined together with 35 out of 36 district attorneys of the state and the sheriffs and the chiefs of police associations and sent letters not to growers but to the pot stores that said, 'This is not legal under state law.'" he says.
"We thought that was our measured way to let people know. We didn't raid anything. We didn't shut anything down. I called folks I know in the medical marijuana community. I met with them a couple different times to tell them what we were doing and why we were doing it. I tried very much to have an open dialog with them. We sent letters directly to people who were selling marijuana, or people we were concerned were selling marijuana that was not legal under state law."
But many of the activists and Rosenblum claim that these letters were a form of intimidation to scare pot growers who were following state law. "I understand that he sent threatening letters to the places that some call medical marijuana dispensaries—some say clinics, collectives—putting a real chilling effect on those who were trying to follow the law and trying to obtain safe access to their medical marijuana to which they're entitled under the law," Rosenblum says.
The second instance is a series of search warrants executed by federal law enforcement officers against marijuana growers in the state, all of which occurred over a relatively short period of time last fall. Holton describes it as "people running a multi-million dollar drug trafficking organization pretending to be working under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act." He adds, "Let me cut to the chase here. During my tenure, at no time has federal law enforcement prosecuted anyone who was in compliance with state law in Oregon. You can ask them to name one person who was prosecuted who was in compliance with state law. They can't come up with a single person."
There are many who do claim these growers were operating under state law, including the growers themselves (most of the cases have yet to be tried in court). Keith Rogers, an owner of one of the raided properties, told an AP reporter in September that he'd checked with all 20 people permitted to grow medical marijuana on his property to ensure they complied with state law. He claimed that if state authorities had done "a search of us and our papers, they would have happily drove off and did nothing. It was strictly the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration."
Robert Wolfe is one of four directors for Citizens for Sensible Law Enforcement, a pro-legalization organization, and the chief petitioner for IP-24, a ballot initiative that would broadly decriminalize marijuana for adults over 21. Wolfe says that he spoke to "activists on the ground" who said the raids targeted "larger outdoor farms that were fully licensed by the state," but that he couldn't speak personally as to whether they were in compliance with state laws.
He claims to have gathered 115,000 signatures for IP-24 and hopes to secure about 184,000, which would put it well above the number needed to place the initiative on the ballot in November (Holton's campaign was quick to point out that Wolfe was recently fined $65,000 for allegedly paying his workers based on the number of signatures gathered rather than by the hour, the largest fine of its kind ever issued in Oregon).
The third instance occurred during a debate with Rosenblum, in which Holton called the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act a "train wreck." This has led to claims that he has no respect for the state law. Many of his critics leave out the second half of his sentence, however, in which he says the law is "putting marijuana in the hands of people, kids, who are not using it for pain management purposes."
Though there are few statistics or studies on how much marijuana grown for medicinal purposes is funneled into the black market, law enforcement professionals have claimed for years that this occurs with some regularity. Alex Moreno, a police chief in Nebraska, said that he's increasingly seeing surplus medical marijuana grown in Colorado flow into his state. "It's a pattern that is likely to increase here in Nebraska, particularly as it becomes more available and more widespread in Colorado," he told an I-News reporter.
The Oregon election places a spotlight on growing tension between federal and state authorities over the use of medical marijuana, which is illegal under federal law. During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama said that he wouldn't use "Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue." Medical marijuana advocates were heartened when, in Obama's first year in office, the Justice Department issued a memo urging prosecutors not to focus on "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana."
But since then, supporters of medical marijuana laws have watched with heightened concern as federal authorities cracked down on state-sanctioned facilities. In California alone, federal law enforcement officers have shut down over 200 dispensaries, and many say the Obama Administration has initiated raids against medical marijuana growers and sellers at a greater rate than George W. Bush.
When asked about this in a recent Rolling Stone interview, Obama said that he "never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana" and that the raids were conducted on "large-scale, commercial operations that may supply medical marijuana users, but in some cases may also be supplying recreational users." Unsurprisingly, many activists feel betrayed by the current administration.
"We're extremely disappointed," says Kris Hermes, a spokesperson for Americans for Safe Access, a national medical marijuana advocacy organization. "And the medical marijuana community feels betrayed in a lot of ways for how President Obama has dealt with this issue, or rather has failed to deal with this issue ... His tactics are unprecedented in this country's history, far worse than his predecessor George W. Bush."
Both Holton and Rosenblum seem surprised that marijuana has become a focus in the race. "This wasn't exactly our major issue in the campaign," says Rosenblum, who has spent much more of her campaign claiming Holton lacks a deep connection to Oregon. "But I guess it's kind of become one." At 61, Rosenblum is a former Oregon Court of Appeals judge. She's lived in Oregon for several decades and graduated from the University of Oregon, where she obtained both her B.S. and law degree. In addition to her stint as a judge, she also served as an Assistant United States Attorney in Oregon.
Still, Holton has taken to attacking Rosenblum for comments she has made that, if elected, she would consider enforcement of marijuana laws "low priority." "The thing that I find kind of shocking is that Ellen would go to a special interest group, any special interest group, and say, 'I'm not going to enforce the laws that regulate you,' and then raise money off it, which is exactly what she's done with marijuana legalization advocates," Holton says. "I think it is incredible that a person could put a 30-year legal career on the line by running for a state's highest law enforcement office by promising not to enforce the law."
Nick Kahl, a former member of the Oregon state legislature and a Holton supporter, echoed these sentiments. "Ellen has said publicly that she will not enforce the law against those people who choose to run afoul of the marijuana laws," he says. "That's a huge concern for me ... For her to come out and pander to the pro-marijuana legalization advocates, I feel like it's out of line."
Rosenblum defends her comments, saying it is a question of resources and priorities. "I think that the attorney generals and DAs and anyone else in leadership positions in government have to set priorities for the department that's under their watch," she says. "That's what I meant by that."
Holton insists that the opposition from the activists is a "non-issue" and that Rosenblum is using it to raise money from national groups that support legalization of marijuana. And she does have support from such groups. Earlier this week, Drug Policy Action, the advocacy and political arm of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group in favor of reforming the nation's drug laws, announced a contribution of $70,000.
If Holton loses on Tuesday, it won't be the first time marijuana activists will claim they were able to tip the scales of an election. In 2010, activists ran ads against Steve Cooley, a Los Angeles District Attorney they considered hostile to medical marijuana dispensaries, when he ran for attorney general of California. He lost by a slim margin, and activists think it was their ads that cost him the election.