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In October 1973, Oregon was the first state to relax laws around marijuana possession. The Legislature and Governor decided to enact this law so that those arrested for possession of a small amount would not receive a criminal record. It would also allow law enforcement agencies to concentrate on more serious offenses. Further, a method for expunging criminal records of one-time offenders was created.
But as there often is with many laws, several issues arose, including no way to tell if a person was driving under the influence, very few penalties for youth offenders, and the inability of juvenile courts to handle such offenses. Even with the decriminalization of drug possession, if a person were to frequent a place where more than an ounce was kept, that person could still technically be charged with a felony.
The Legislature had seen the rise of arrests for marijuana violations increase exponentially through the 1960s though only one percent of those arrests were for use, leading to the proposal and eventual passage of the 1973 law around possession of marijuana. The arrests were mainly of 18- and 19-year-old males and according to a National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse report, most people were arrested because of public appearance and conduct. But to incarcerate all marijuana users in Oregon in 1973 would have required 100 times the capacity of the Oregon State Correctional Institution. However, despite the growing number of arrests, there was still a growing amount of use across all age groups, incomes, and educational backgrounds, and if the sample for the questionnaire linked above can be extrapolated to the adult population in Oregon at the time, it would have meant at least 250,000 people were engaged in criminal activity around marijuana.
Opinions around the decriminalization of marijuana are closely tied to one’s personal experience with it. Those who have never tried marijuana are likely to not be convinced by the scientific findings of how marijuana affects people.
In 1998, through Ballot Measure 67, voters passed medical marijuana use with a physician’s recommendation. Patients and caregivers would need to register in a state-run registry and carry documentation stating their eligibility for the program. For the most part, very few physicians were utilizing the new program even three years after its official establishment in 2002, with less than 3% of the more than 12,900 physicians having recommended medical marijuana to at least one patient. However, there was a single instance in which one physician had recommended medical marijuana to over 800 patients in this short time span resulting in the physician being reprimanded. Law enforcement officials stated that though the new medical marijuana laws had not greatly affected their law enforcement activities, there was some confusion around how to handle seized marijuana and that the laws around marijuana had softened public attitudes towards this Schedule I controlled substance.
In 2014, voters were faced again with another ballot measure, Ballot Measure 91, but this time over the possession, cultivation, and sale of marijuana by adults. Voters passed the measure allowing for licensing of sellers, taxation of marijuana, and regulation of the cultivation of marijuana, but not affecting the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. There were other restrictions such as no sales to those under the age of 21, no consumption of marijuana in public, and that one could not drive while intoxicated. The United State Justice Department in August of 2013 also released guidance for states that had legalized the use of recreational marijuana while federally the drug is still a controlled substance. Some of these guidelines were that there could be no sales from a state where it was legalized to a state where it was not, and that the sale of recreational marijuana could not be used as a cover for illegal activity.
This digital highlight debuted in November 2023.