Activists And Members Of Justice System Spar Over Measure 91

“Probably some of my fondest olfactory memories are the smell of burning marijuana at the University of Oregon,” says Joshua Marquis, district attorney for Clatsop County. “I smoked dope when I was a freshman, and it didn’t kill me, and it didn’t turn me into a drug addict.”

But while acknowledging the relatively benign effect of weed, Marquis and other members of the Oregon justice system have begun to challenge proponents of Measure 91 on the finer points of the November initiative to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in Oregon.

Measure 91’s impacts extend into the arenas of business and economics. A Survey USA poll in June showed that 51 percent of likely voters in Oregon support marijuana legalization, and Anthony Johnson, a sponsor of the “Yes on 91” campaign, argues that Measure 91 would help boost Oregon’s struggling economy. “The cannabis industry is poised to provide paying jobs and follow in the footsteps of the microbrewery and winery industries,” Johnson says.

Marquis’ argument against Measure 91 revolves around crime rather than business, and a touchstone of that argument is the danger that stoned Oregonians pose to themselves and others while driving. Marquis says that almost every crash involving death or injury in Clatsop County in the past few years has involved marijuana, among other drugs.

Gary Bettencourt, Gilliam County Sheriff and president of the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association, says he has seen the same thing in his county, and believes that Measure 91 will only magnify the problem. “If you make marijuana available, people are going to smoke and drive — it’s human nature,” Bettencourt says.

Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and policy at the Drug Policy Alliance (which, with its sister organization Drug Policy Action has given $460,000 to the well-funded Yes on 91 campaign since April, according to Oregon Secretary of State ORESTAR website), says this argument doesn’t stand up to the evidence.

Reiman cites data from Colorado, where marijuana has been legal for two years, that shows a decreased rate of traffic fatalities since last year. “If we’re getting the outcome we want — less people dying,” Reiman asks, “then how concerned should we be about an increase in behavior that may or may not be impacting the outcome?”

Marquis, however, says he believes any economic benefits will be neutralized by the costs of widespread marijuana usage: “[Addiction specialists] will tell you that for every tax dollar you collect from state tobacco or alcohol, you pay $10 on the other end for the end effects of it. Everything in life is a cost-benefit.”

The Yes on 91 campaign is running television commercials featuring Richard Harris, former director of Addictions and Mental Health Services for the state of Oregon. In the ad spots he says, “Criminalizing marijuana ruins lives and wastes resources,” and adds, “right now, there is no state-appropriated money in Oregon for drug and alcohol prevention programs, including for marijuana, but Measure 91 would change that.”

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