SALEM — If Oregon legalizes pot, Mexico will be a more stable country, the state will save money and police can focus on more harmful drugs, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer said during a debate held by the Salem City Club on Friday.
One of Congress’s most vocal proponents of federally legalizing marijuana made his case in favor of Oregon’s Ballot Measure 91, which if passed in November would allow adults to possess up to a half-pound of pot.
Blumenauer, long critical of the nation’s current pot laws, told a crowd of about 100 that Oregon has the chance to be at the forefront of reform he says will sweep the country over the next decade.
“What we want to do is be able to take the Wild West that’s funded drug cartels and be able to turn it into a legitimate tax-paying, regulated enterprise,” Blumenauer, D-Ore., said.
Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, who is acting as spokesman of the group against Measure 91, was at the other end of the debate table.
“I don’t want people driving under the influence. And I don’t want kids to get (marijuana),” Marquis said.
The proposal would allow those over the age of 21 to possess 8 ounces of buds.
Money from the taxes on legal recreational marijuana in Oregon would fund police, schools and health programs. Colorado and Washington have both legalized marijuana.
Marquis said Oregon got the law right when it was the first in the nation to decriminalize pot four decades ago, allowing police to cite residents for possession rather than send them to jail.
“I have used marijuana. It’s been a long time. About 40 years. And I did inhale,” Marquis said.
But he said the argument that Oregon’s prisons are clogged with marijuana users and the notion that the state pays more for prisons than education is “simply not true.”
Records from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission last month showed just five people are in prison in Oregon for possession of marijuana. In total, 130 people are in prison for marijuana-related crimes with an average sentence of about two years, the records showed.
Blumenauer called the nation’s current approach to drugs “an expensive failure.”
Law enforcement targets minorities at a higher rate than whites, “even though they smoke at the same rate,” said Blumenauer.
“Even an arrest or a fine that they cannot afford can start them down a path of failure and frustration which often leads to a real life of crime,” he said. “It’s failing our children.”
Blumenauer last week called for a federal investigation into a 13-city “Marijuana Education Tour” that was originally funded in part by federal dollars. That led to sparring in the media before the groups met in person Friday.
The state Addictions and Mental Health Division was going to send two people to moderate at a stop on the tour before announcing in late August it was backing out.
“Because of the timing of the series as well as the choice of speakers that have a reputation for taking a political stance, we decided not to participate ourselves,” said Rebeka Gipson-King, a spokeswoman for the division.
The state’s 36 district attorneys are lockstep in opposition to Measure 91, though they differ in their reasons against it. Some believe pot shouldn’t be legalized. Several said they thought the bill was poorly worded.
Marquis said the proposal leaves open too many questions as written. It would then be up to lawmakers to regulate the newly passed law before it took effect.
“Do I completely trust the Legislature to fix it? No,” Marquis said after the debate.
The measure is one of three contentious proposals on the 2014 ballot, along with a proposal to require labeling most genetically engineered food and ditching the state’s partisan primary for a “top-two” format.
Washington and Colorado laws allow for possession of up to an ounce for recreational use. Colorado residents can grow up to six plants.
The most recent poll in June showed 51 percent of voters were in favor of legalizing pot in Oregon versus 41 percent against.
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