On Marijuana, the Work Continues

By Ethan Nadelmann and David Rogers
This article originally appeared in the Portland Tribune

Marijuana foilage

It’s been a busy two years for marijuana policy in Oregon. Not so long ago Oregon was arresting or citing 14,000 people per year for marijuana crimes; now the state is on the cusp of a safe, well-regulated market for adult-use marijuana. The evolution of the cannabis industry and its growing diversity of products is fascinating, and important to regulate as responsibly as possible, but Oregonians need to stay focused on reforming the costly and broken criminal justice system.

Oregon’s Measure 91 was rightly called “the new Gold Standard” of marijuana law reform bills even before voters approved it, with 56% of the vote, on Election Day 2014. What most appealed to voters, according to polling, were the criminal justice reform aspects of the initiative. Even though Oregon had led the nation in 1973 by decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, thousands of people were still being arrested each year for marijuana infractions. Oregonians clearly wanted to put a stop to that.

To a great extent, they have gotten what they wanted with the new law and subsequent reforms. Thanks are due to Colorado and Washington for having paved the way, but much of the credit must go to the Oregon Legislature and local advocates who have kept up the drumbeat of harm reduction and criminal justice reform.

Over the last two sessions of the Oregon legislature, most marijuana felonies were reduced to more right-sized levels – lesser felonies or misdemeanors. The legislature also expanded the availability of expungement and sealing of the records for individuals who have completed serving sentences for marijuana infractions. For over 78,000 Oregonians who made past mistakes, that can be the difference between a job offer and a rejection letter. These are the real, human impacts of drug policy reform.

However, there is more to be done.

For example, why are marijuana penalties still much higher than analogous penalties for alcohol when we know marijuana poses lower risks to public health and safety? The most probable answer is that old-school prohibitionist attitudes linger from an earlier era, causing little good and significant harm.

Minor marijuana infractions can entangle Oregonians in the criminal justice system in ways that make little sense. Why should a household with a green thumb, i.e., one that grows four legal plants but yields more than the allowable eight ounces of marijuana, be sanctioned with a misdemeanor?  And why should a neighbor, whose house happens to fall just within the 1,000-feet-from-a-school boundary, be subject to a Class C felony for growing five plants instead of their legal four?

Sentencing guidelines still need to be adjusted. The Criminal Justice Commission has yet to reset them in proportion to the new reduced penalties, leaving sentencing levels up to the discretion of individual judges who may vary greatly in how they feel about marijuana or the new law. The time should match the crime, and right now it doesn’t.

With marijuana legalization on the ballot this November in five other states, and under consideration right now by a growing number of state legislatures, all eyes are on Oregon. We need to get it right, both for our sake and for the country’s. We are, after all, the new Gold Standard.

Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. David Rogers is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.