SALEM — At least four of Oregon’s district attorneys don’t know whether they’ll prosecute pending pot offenses that would be legal if committed after possession by adults becomes legal on July 1, 2015, according to a survey by The Bulletin.
With the passage of Measure 91, Oregon became the fourth state to legalize marijuana possession and to create guidelines for a new industry that will take shape in January 2016. That has brought questions from all corners of state and local government.
Among other questions, many of which will be addressed by the Legislature next year, is what will happen to the marijuana cases and citations that will no longer be illegal in July. Many of the state’s 36 district attorneys say the question isn’t at the top of their list.
“I’m trying to find out how many cases I’ve got pending,” said Coos County District Attorney Paul Frasier, who added that the cases might help make his decision. “Somebody told me maybe we have two that are just marijuana-type cases.”
The Bulletin asked every district attorney, including incoming Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel, where they stood on prosecuting past and future marijuana cases. Twenty-eight answered the survey.
Eleven say they’ll continue enforcing the law as it stands through July. Eight say they’ll address pot crimes and citations on a case-by-case basis, and four say they’re undecided.
Four district attorneys, Rod Underhill from Multnomah County, John Foote from Clackamas County, Bob Hermann from Washington County and Everett Dial from Curry County, have decided they will drop cases in which crimes or citations would no longer be illegal under the newly passed law.
Residents in those Portland metro counties voted in favor of the measure, as did Curry County voters.
Some other district attorneys kept open the option of dropping or revising charges.
Many said they are taking cues from county voters in making their decisions. The elected attorneys in rural counties that mostly rejected the measure largely said they would continue prosecuting as usual until the law changes next July.
“We have so few cases out here that what I’ll probably do is continue the status quo until the 2015 changes,” said Matt Shirtcliff, district attorney in Baker County in Eastern Oregon. “I’ve got to go through them and look and see if there’s anything that we would treat differently.”
Others said they have more important cases to focus on, and more still said marijuana just isn’t a big part of the caseload in their counties.
“I’m not aware of anyone in prison in Oregon who wouldn’t be even if Measure 91 was in effect, which it isn’t until July 1, 2015,” said Josh Marquis, the Clatsop County district attorney who was also an outspoken opponent of the ballot measure that passed 56.1 percent to 43.9 percent.
Marquis, who said his office has filed two marijuana cases this year and has 20 more pending, said he would review those cases and address any future ones on a case-by-case basis.
Underhill said he would drop 21 open cases and 29 warrants, and he will avoid prosecuting future cases “absent exceptional circumstances.”
Outgoing Deschutes County District Attorney Patrick Flaherty passed the question off to incoming DA John Hummel, who said he will decide the first week of December what he will do.
The lack of unity among the state’s district attorneys contrasts with their opinions prior to the election, when a Bulletin survey found all 36 attorneys opposed the measure, including Underhill and Foote.
A group that included the measure’s chief petitioner, Anthony Johnson, Becky Straus from the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon and former prosecutors, wrote an open letter to district attorneys Nov. 20, asking them to drop cases.
Johnson called it a “positive development” that eight of the responding district attorneys said they’d take a case-by-case approach.
“This can have a great impact on many peoples’ lives. There could be instances where someone goes from being charged with a felony to a misdemeanor,” Johnson said. “That can greatly improve their chances to get a job, education and housing opportunities.”
The Oregon District Attorney Association, which meets to discuss issues and pending legislation, will meet in Gleneden Beach beginning Wednesday.
Frasier, who has served as the association’s president this year and sets the agenda for the semiannual meeting, said he didn’t expect marijuana to be a big talking point.
“Frankly, when it comes to what the individual DAs are going to do, I know the association basically is going to say it’s up to the individual DA to decide what they’re going to do,” he said.
Still, the attorneys at the meeting, which isn’t open to the press or public, will likely face questions as the group discusses its legislative priorities.
Marquis said he planned to discuss other counties’ plans at the meeting.
While the state’s liquor commission is tasked with creating guidelines for licensing the industry, lawmakers will face the brunt of the uncertainty head-on starting early next session.
Members of a task force that met in late November had no shortage of questions, with some legislators expressing dismay that voters passed the statute and others saying they preferred a stronger state presence when the marijuana industry takes off in 2016.
“I’m not totally convinced that it wouldn’t make more sense to just operate like we do liquor sales, let the state be in the middle,” Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Eugene, said. “It’s not what the voters voted for, but again it’s one of those things I think we may be able to operate a system faster without the problems Washington and Colorado had by going that route.”
— Reporter: 406-589-4347,