Elected attorneys general are powerful players in defining the policies and programs of states across the country. And that goes double when it comes to the failed and fiercely expensive “war on drugs.”
So what if a state were to elect an attorney general who gets it, who understands that law enforcement should be focused on real threats, not whether folks choose to smoke a little marijuana—for medical purposes or for pleasure?
That’s the question facing Oregon Democratic primary voters today, as they choose a nominee to replace retiring state Attorney General John Kroger.
One of the Democratic contenders, former interim US attorney Dwight Holton, is a critic of Oregon’s medical marijuana law, saying that the law is a “train wreck” and promising strict oversight. The Associated Press reports: “Holton was the state’s top federal prosecutor when federal agents raided marijuana farms that, according to the owners, were growing pot for medicinal use. Authorities said the farms were producing marijuana that ended up on the black market.”
The other Democrat, former Oregon Court of Appeals Judge Ellen Rosenblum, says: “The priorities of the next Attorney General need to be wisely using our limited tax dollars—protecting consumers and prosecuting dangerous criminals. I do not believe that prosecuting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana represents the best use of our resources. A better use of those resources is providing more treatment options for people with drug and alcohol addiction. As Attorney General, I will make marijuana enforcement a low priority, and protect the rights of medical marijuana patients.”
The difference has shaken up the primary race, with advocates for drug-policy reform steering grassroots support and campaign money to Rosenblum, who polls suggest has come from behind to be a serious competitor for the nomination.
That has drawn criticism from the Holton camp. “A campaign promise not to enforce the law—especially when one is running to be Oregon’s top law enforcement officer—sends all the wrong signals about having respect for Oregon law and the responsibility of the Attorney General has to uphold it,” said Jillian Schoene, spokeswoman for the Holton campaign. “With Rosenblum at the helm, drug traffickers who abuse state marijuana laws know that they will be able to continue to use Oregon for backdoor legalization.”
There’s some evidence that the hyperbole may have blown up on Holton who, despite significant union support, has struggled to keep pace with Rosenblum.
National groups say that if Rosenblum wins, it will send a powerful signal regarding debates about medical marijuana and the war on drugs.
“If Dwight Holton loses,” says the Drug Policy Alliance’s Jill Harris, “we hope it sends a clear message to US attorneys around the country that thwarting the will of the voters and denying sick patients access to their medicine is not a path to political career advancement.”
In addition to the attorney general primary, there are a number of other Oregon primary contests that are worth noting, especially the contest between state Representative Michael Schaufler and challenger Jeff Reardon in House District 48.
Schaufler is a Democrat, but he has been a swing vote in the closely divided Oregon House. And he has often swung in favor of business interests. The incumbent was also embarrassed when he was stripped of a key committee chairmanship after being accused of groping a woman at a labor event. So, when he accepted a $3,000 contribution from the Koch brothers—via a Koch Industries fund—that stirred an outcry. The Kochs rarely donate to Democrats; indeed, the check sent to Schaufler was the first in recent memory to a Democrat in any Western state.
The incumbent quickly returned the donation from the billionaire conservative donors. But the question of what attracted them to his candidacy has become a real issue in the race with Reardon, who has been endorsed by the Oregon Working Families Party, MoveOn.org, the Sierra Club and several key unions.
A Reardon victory would send a powerful signal about the determination of Democrats to stand on principle, and to use their legislative majorities to actually get things done. That message goes beyond Oregon. Democratic primary voters in Pennsylvania recently removed two “Blue Dog” congressmen who sided with the Republicans on key issues in Washington. If the trend spreads to Oregon, and beyond, it could play a critical role in defining the Democratic party as a more committed and energetic force not just in politics but in the governing of communities, states and the nation.