Supporters of legalizing marijuana in Oregon are praising the federal government's decision to allow states with new medical or recreational-use marijuana laws to move forward without interference, as long as there's no money laundering, sales to minors or growing on public lands.
"It's certainly a historical moment, a glorious day," said Laird Funk, a Williams resident and member of the state Advisory Committee on Medical Marijuana. "It's going to make things much simpler."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Thursday told governors of Washington and Colorado that U.S. attorneys will honor legal marijuana laws but will prosecute cases involving the use of violence and firearms, using pot as a cover for other illicit drugs, trafficking to states where pot is still illegal and funneling pot money to criminal gangs and cartels.
With the lifting of federal interference on state-legalized marijuana, Funk said he expects personal-use pot laws in Oregon to "go forth rapidly," via either a vote of the 2014 Legislature or lawmakers' referral to voters.
"This is one more step forward in ending the prohibition of cannabis and the failed War on Drugs," said Lori Duckworth of Southern Oregon National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "I hope law enforcement resources can be used where there are true victims ... I hope many past cases can be dismissed."
Duckworth, 48, and her husband, Leland Duckworth, 49, were arrested in a series of medical marijuana dispensary raids in May and face a host of racketeering, conspiracy and manufacturing charges. Medford police allege the dispensaries were storefronts for illegal marijuana sales. The Duckworths have pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Oregon U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall said her staff reviewed marijuana prosecutions over the past two years and said all of the cases would have gone forward under the new federal guidelines. She said the cases, including many from Southern Oregon, were prosecuted because of money laundering, racketeering or other illegal activity — not for possession, use and sale as allowed by Oregon's medical marijuana law, approved by voters in 1998.
As long as states have a strict system to regulate legal medical or personal-use marijuana and prohibit violations in the eight areas outlined by Holder, "then we won't be getting involved," Marshall said in a telephone interview.
After Holder's pronouncement, Marshall and her drug team sat down to comb over cases and found the new policy "did not impact any cases at all. We have not now or ever prosecuted a case where they acted in full compliance with Oregon's medical marijuana laws. We've not lost a single case and the majority of defendants later admitted they were lying."
Marshall adds that in many Southern Oregon cases, investigators have found that cards were obtained to enable larger grows, but often, cardholders "were not getting or using marijuana and were just getting cards to justify the operation."
The new federal policy, said state Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, "is the right thing to do. Legalization has been a long time coming. The war on drugs has had a terrible impact on low-income communities and we've got to try something else."
Buckley said he'd prefer to have lawmakers refer the measure to voters, so the Legislature could hold hearings, get fully on track with federal policies and have a measure in final form for the ballot.
Under Oregon's medical marijuana regime, said Buckley, federal agents have not gone after people who've "stayed within the boundaries. I always advise not to go outside the boundaries."
Funk agreed that patients and producers have not been prosecuted for violating federal rules as long as they were in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.
With states legalizing personal-use pot, Funk said, "It looks like Holder finally got it right, unless he wanted to declare war on more and more states. This has got to be a good thing. He had no other choice, unless he wants to add states to the list of enemies."
The shift by the Obama administration, Funk said, will likely eliminate one of the chief arguments of opponents who say legalization is against federal law and therefore won't work.
"Now they can put more focus on prosecuting real criminals," Funk said.
The new federal stance, as well as the just-passed state law regulating pot dispensaries, will make it easier for producers to make a living, thus making it pay to stay within the law, said Funk.
The dispensary bill is in the process of rule-writing, with state officials keeping an eye on federal pot guidelines to make those rules, said Buckley. The process should be done by March, he added, allowing dispensaries to open.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.