It was billed as the “Great Pot Debate,” and the Tuesday night event at Portland State University lived up to its name.
Supporters and opponents of legalizing marijuana argued over whether Oregon’s current laws are too harsh or plenty mellow, the influence of the drug cartels in the state and just what it would be like if marijuana retailers set up shop around the state.
Two supporters and two opponents from the rival campaigns spent 90 minutes debating the drug laws in front of a mostly pro-marijuana crowd as cameras captured the event for live streaming and later broadcast on KATU TV.
The sometimes-raucous air of the evening was perhaps best captured when Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis – an opponent of the Measure 91 legalization measure – insisted that Mexican drug cartels make their big money off of meth and heroin and can’t really compete with locally grown marijuana.
“We grow much better pot in Oregon,” said Marquis to loud cheers from audience members who seemed to be expressing hometown pride about the quality of the local crop.
Richard Harris, the former director of the state’s addiction services division and a spokesman for the Measure 91 campaign, argued that legalizing marijuana would take business from the cartels and other criminals.
“Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States and in Oregon as well,” Harris said, “and so this has bred a large industry of illegal and criminal activity” that can be curtailed by allowing regulated sale and use of the drug.
Harris said more than 90,000 Oregonians have been arrested or received non-criminal citations for marijuana offenses over the last decade, which he said is no small thing.
“A record follows you everywhere,” Harris said, potentially hurting your ability to get housing, a job and student loans.
“It’s not an arrest, Richard,” countered Marquis, who repeatedly noted that most marijuana offenders who run afoul of the police receive a non-criminal citation — and in many cases, the police don’t bother to take any action at all.
To drive home his point, Marquis read a passage from Portland writer Chuck Palahniuk describing how the police once knocked on his door while he was smoking pot to tell him his grandmother was worried about him. Their only message: Call her.
Russ Belville, a marijuana activist who has an internet radio show devoted to all things pot, rose from the audience to challenge Marquis and the other Measure 91 opponent on stage, Ron Schwerzler.
Belville said he is a responsible marijuana user and asked, if Measure 91 fails, what advice they would give. “Do you recommend I continue buying from criminals, do you recommend I grow and become a criminal, do you recommend I go to Vancouver and buy and come back and become a criminal, or do you recommend I cheat the medical marijuana program?”
That got more raucous cheers and applause. “So why do you need the drug?” asked Schwerzler, medical director at a Eugene addiction treatment clinic.
“Because I enjoy it more than alcohol, sir,” Bellville replied.
Schwerzler countered that marijuana can be damaging and addictive to many people, which he argued is a reason why it shouldn’t be legalized for non-medical users.
— Jeff Mapes