- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

The (Medford) Mail Tribune, May 29, on the Legislature and recreational pot

Oregon lawmakers struggling to implement marijuana legalization starting July 1 should worry less about the feds and more about creating a real, functioning market for the drug. Most of all, they should not encourage a continuation of the black market fed by the state’s loosely written medical marijuana laws.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission, designated in the voter-passed Ballot Measure 91 as the agency responsible for regulating retail sales, says it won’t be ready to roll out rules until this fall, will take applications starting in January and the first retail outlets will open in the fall of 2016 - more than a year after recreational marijuana becomes legal to possess and consume. That’s far too late.

Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, was right when he asked OLCC Chairman Rob Patridge on Wednesday if the delay wouldn’t “incentivize the black market.”

Patridge replied that consumers could simply grow their own until retail outlets are open. The problem is, many won’t. They’ll just find a willing seller who just might be a medical marijuana grower with excess production on his hands and bills to pay.

Which brings up the issue that has angered medical marijuana advocates, but which must be addressed if the state is to have any hope of creating a functioning market for recreational as well as medical marijuana: There is a surplus of high-quality marijuana worth millions on the black market.

There are certainly many well-meaning, caring individuals growing medical marijuana purely out of the desire to help seriously ill people: the Oregon Health Authority reports three-quarters of the state’s registered growers serve just two or three patients. But 400 sites grow for 10 or more patients, and it is a known fact that large quantities of Oregon medical marijuana are being diverted to the black market here and across the country. That was a natural and inevitable consequence of voters’ legalizing medical marijuana but making it illegal to make a profit growing it.

Seth Crawford, a marijuana policy researcher at Oregon State University, told The Oregonian that by his estimate, Oregon growers produce three to five times the 150,000 pounds consumed in the state. Privateer Holdings, a Seattle venture capital firm specializing in the legal marijuana industry, estimates Oregon grows enough medical marijuana to supply all the patients in Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Arizona.

Legislation to more strictly regulate the size of medical grows and track the crops to the point of sale is essential, or Oregon cannot hope to create a functioning recreational market that won’t be undercut by the black market. If it cannot, Patridge says, he fears the U.S. Justice Department will swoop in and prosecute people under federal law, which still considers marijuana an illegal, dangerous drug.

But waiting for a strict “seed to sale” tracking system before allowing retail sales will virtually guarantee a flourishing black market. Instead, some lawmakers want to let recreational sales take place in medical dispensaries, side by side with medical marijuana, as soon as possible after July 1, even if the details of tracking the drug are still being worked out.

That makes sense, and it offers the best chance of a recreational market that functions as it should, in the light of day.


Albany Democrat-Herald, May 29, on the Legislature and recreational pot

If you’ve been baffled trying to figure out what’s going on in the Oregon Legislature regarding marijuana, you’re not alone.

But the outlines of the issues legislators have been grappling with are coming into focus - although it’s still not clear how those issues will be resolved in the closing weeks of the session.

One thing is for certain: Even though much of the marijuana action in this session has revolved around medical pot, all of those debates also involve the shape of the state’s recreational marijuana market, when that finally starts to take shape next year. (Remember that, even though recreational use of marijuana becomes legal on July 1, recreational pot retail outlets won’t be in place until next year.)

Two issues have proven to be major stumbling blocks for the Legislature. One probably could have been predicted just by watching local governments grapple with whether they wanted to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in their communities. As for the other issue, you can file that away in your “who knew” category: Because Oregon turns out to offer ideal conditions to grow large amounts of marijuana, lawmakers are trying to do what they can now to limit the amount of pot that goes into the black market.

If the black market thrives, that could undercut all the work Oregon has done to create marketplaces for both medical and recreational pot - and, of course, the state doesn’t get any kind of tax cut from black-market sales.

Senate Bill 964, which passed the Senate this week, imposes limits on the number of plants allowed on medical marijuana farms and requires regular reporting by growers. Urban growers would be limited to 12 plants; those outside cities would be limited to 48 plants. Existing growers could have twice as many plants, but only to serve current customers.

As you might imagine, growers and patients aren’t particularly happy with those restrictions, so there’s no saying how the limitations will play in the House.

But a big split continues to brew between the House and Senate on the local control issue. So it’s no surprise that Senate Bill 964 contains a provision that allows local governments to ban dispensaries if they so choose, but also establishes a relatively easy initiative process by which citizens can challenge the bans. House members of the joint committee on marijuana argued that only voters should be allowed to implement a ban. At first glance, we prefer the Senate plan, which places the first decisions on whether to implement a ban in the hands of an elected body - and offers a reasonable way for engaged voters to challenge those decisions.

The decisions the Legislature makes on these issues in the next few weeks will help shape how the state designs a system for the retail sale of recreational marijuana. But one increasingly gets the sense that plenty of details will be unsettled by July 1, when recreational use becomes legal.

It’s been a wild ride thus far on marijuana. It’s likely to get a lot wilder in the months to come.


The (Bend) Bulletin, May 30, on marijuana convictions

Oregonians will be able to use marijuana legally in just over a month. And, if some members of the Legislature have their way, some may get an unexpected benefit, as well. It’s a gesture that leaves one hoping cooler legislative heads will prevail.

State Rep. Ann Lininger, D-Lake Oswego, has proposed an amendment to House Bill 3400, the Legislature’s catch-all pot bill, that would allow those arrested for, or convicted of, a variety of marijuana-related crimes to have their records expunged.

There are limits, to be sure. Those convicted of Class A - the state’s most serious - felonies could not be granted amnesty, and there’s a three-year waiting period between conviction and amnesty application.

But the amendment would allow those convicted of Class B felonies to have their records expunged. Those felonies are punishable by as many as 10 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000. Other Class B felonies in Oregon include money laundering and abuse of a corpse. Even in the world of recently legalized marijuana, a conviction on a Class B felony charge is generally not small potatoes.

There’s something unsettling about the idea of simply wiping out a person’s criminal record with the stroke of a pen. Yes, times - and laws - change, and what is acceptable legal behavior today was both unacceptable and illegal in times past.

But breaking the law, even the law on marijuana, too often reflects an individual’s belief that the rules that govern the rest of us simply do not apply to him, and that, in turn, says something about character that is worth knowing. The state should leave marijuana convictions alone.


The (Eugene) Register-Guard, June 1, on the leaker of Kitzhaber’s emails

State Rep. Knute Buehler called Michael Rodgers “an Oregon hero” last week for giving copies of former Gov. John Kitzhaber’s emails to the Willamette Week newspaper - a leak that precipitated Kitzhaber’s resignation in February. Not everyone agrees with Buehler’s assessment. Rodgers is on administrative leave, could face criminal charges and made his identity public last week as part of a plea for help with paying his mounting legal bills. But at worst, Rodgers did the right thing in the wrong way.

There are clearly elements of heroism in Rodgers’ conduct. There are also elements of possible illegality. In sorting out these elements, it’s helpful to keep the circumstances in mind - circumstances that would have made it easy for Rodgers to cooperate in making the governor’s emails disappear. Instead, Rodgers’ instinct was to do what was right, and preserve the emails. If any laws were broken, it was because he believed the normal channels for protecting the public interest were closed.

Rodgers was working as a senior information systems administrator when a request came from the governor’s office asking that 6,000 of Kitzhaber’s emails be deleted. These were personal emails that had inadvertently been archived along with material related to official business. Rodgers suspected that the personal emails might include public records whose destruction would be illegal. Rodgers says the governor’s office assured him the emails would be reviewed before any were destroyed. Rodgers then made copies of the emails, fearing that such a review would be conducted in a way that would seek to protect Kitzhaber from embarrassment.

Rodgers did not know where to go with the copied material. He didn’t trust anyone in state government - not the state police, not the Oregon Government Ethics Commission and not the courts, all of which he judged to be beholden to Kitzhaber. A lawyer in the state Department of Justice told him that her duty was to defend the state, which Rodgers understood to mean the governor.

At that point, Rodgers had a lot of protection. Oregon’s whistleblower laws say that a public employee can’t be fired, demoted, transferred or disciplined in any way for disclosing any violation of the law or any instance of fraud, abuse or waste. They also protect public employees from being punished for speaking out in any way against a violation of a law or regulation. The secretary of state’s office maintains a hot line that state employees can use, anonymously if they choose, to report illegalities or abuse.

But Rodgers gave the emails to Willamette Week, which exposed him to the possibility of charges of official misconduct. It was clearly a major breach of confidentiality.

But as the contents of the emails became known, any doubts about their status as public records disappeared. They included substantive discussions of public matters, ranging from the failure of the Cover Oregon health care website to the efforts of Kitzhaber’s fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, to influence state policy. And it was news of the request from the governor’s office that the emails be deleted that triggered a cascade of calls by state Democratic leaders for Kitzhaber’s resignation.

Rodgers is under investigation by the state police and the Department of Justice, and those agencies may find information that casts his behavior in a different light. But based on what’s known now, Rodgers ensured that emails vital to understanding and investigating potential wrongdoing in the governor’s office were preserved. While it may be premature to label him a hero, it’s clear that Rodgers’ aim was to be a public servant.


Baker City Herald, May 29, on PERS

Most times, and in most places, a growing economy means more tax revenue for schools, fire and police departments, and other public services.

But that’s not always the case in Oregon.

Our state’s mascot, the beaver, is appropriate - if you picture the rodent gnawing not on trees but on tax dollars.

The glutton here is not an animal, though.

It’s PERS.

That’s Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System, an indefensibly generous system, created more than 30 years ago in part by officials who are members, that has been, and will continue to be, a financial drain that stifles some of the public benefits of a robust economy.

State officials tried to loosen PERS’ grip in 2013, passing a series of reforms that could have saved as much as $5.3 billion.

Unfortunately, and predictably given that PERS involves binding contracts, the Oregon Supreme Court in late April rejected most of those changes.

The bottom line: Cities, counties and school districts will have to divert more tax dollars in the coming years to retired workers, leaving less money for teachers, firefighters, police officers and others.

And so the most recent economic forecast - that Oregon schools will get $105 million more than they expected next year - doesn’t mean what you think it might mean.

More teachers?

Maybe not.

More money for retirees?


Doug Dalton, the Baker School District’s chief financial officer, told the school board this month that he’s already earmarked some of the district’s estimated share of $250,000 to $270,000 to cover its rising PERS bill.

Some of that money will pay for technology and maintenance upgrades.

But it’s still a pity that PERS, and in particular the version of the system that applies to public employees hired before 1996, takes such a large chunk of the tax money that ought to pay for services that benefit taxpayers now.

We can’t think of a better lesson in the consequences of letting elected officials create their own retirement system.

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