Why Oregon Sheriffs Really Want To Keep Marijuana Illegal

When public money disappeared to bring Kevin Sabet to “educate” Oregonians about the perils of legalizing marijuana under Measure 91, the Oregon Sheriffs Association stepped up quickly to replace the $15,000 needed to pay Sabet and continue the Oregon Marijuana “Education” Tour & Summit that only happens in October when legalization is on the ballot the following November.

A look at the funding for the No on 91 Campaign shows that of the $167,425 they’ve reported as of today, a whopping 98.6% of that came from the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association and the Oregon Narcotics Enforcement Association… in fact, they are the only donors over $500.

Why do you suppose that the cops in Oregon are so hell-bent on ensuring that marijuana remains illegal in Oregon?  After all, marijuana was decriminalized in 1973. It’s no big deal, says No on 91 spokesperson Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, “You didn’t get a free ride in a police car. You didn’t have a criminal record. That’s what less than an ounce of marijuana is in Oregon.” And, of course, we have 69,000 medical marijuana patients and another 34,000 or more caregivers and maybe 15,000 growers — potentially well over 100,000 Oregonians whose marijuana cultivation and possession are protected under the law. So why the big push by cops to keep the greater-than-one-ounce possession and non-medical-cultivation-and-sales crimes on the books?

Simple. As my pal Rick Steves says, “follow the money.”

The State of Oregon produces an annual report on Asset Forfeiture in the state. You may have read the Washington Post’s story or seen John Oliver’s segment on this practice. Basically, asset forfeiture is when cops steal your cash, car, home, and other valuables, under the pretense that it was all ill-gotten proceeds of criminal activity. The idea, pushed by then-Senator Joe Biden in the late 1980s, was to seize the sports cars, yachts, and cash from those Miami Vice cocaine kingpins and use the money to fund police efforts to catch them.

A laudable goal, but one that came with a really big unintended consequence: policing for profit. No longer was the idea to go after the cocaine kingpin who can afford an army of lawyers to defend himself in court, but rather the small-time drug user or dealer who had enough money worth taking but not enough means to fight to get it back.  And it takes some means to fight back, as your property has no constitutional rights and is considered guilty until proven innocent. In fact, you personally don’t even need to be charged with a crime (and usually aren’t) in order for cops to steal your stuff on the basis that it was criminal stuff.

According to the Oregon 2013 Asset Forfeiture Report, criminal and civil asset forfeitures grossed $3.6 million for the state, $2.5 million of that in cash. After costs and distributions, the net proceeds were $1.7 million.  19 police agencies made 136 criminal seizures and 24 agencies made 258 civil seizures. Of these 394 seizures, 330 (84%) were uncontested  by the owners — it is somewhat difficult to hire a lawyer to get your seized cash when you have no cash for the lawyer, and often the cost of the lawyer exceeds the value of the cash seized.

This is where marijuana comes in. Of the 273 “prohibited conduct” crimes that led to a criminal forfeiture, 90% were drug crimes (there were multiple crimes involved in some of the 136 criminal seizures). Of those drug crimes, almost half were related to marijuana (and again, multiple drugs could be discovered in one seizure). On the civil side, of the 543 “prohibited conduct” crimes, 97% were drug crimes  and 22% of those involved marijuana.

Any way you slice it, making marijuana no longer a contraband item will take a big chunk out of that net proceeds of $1.7 million annually, $1.4 million of which went to city, county, and state police and district attorneys.

Marijuana is unique among drugs in that it has a powerful smell and it is commonly used (1 in 9 adult Oregonians aged 21+ use marijuana monthly, 1 in 6.5 use annually ). When a cop pulls over a car he suspects is a worthy seizure, he need only claim he smells marijuana to establish the reasonable suspicion he needs to bring in the K-9 drug dog. When the drug dog then alerts — which is a false alert 1 in 5 times  around the perimeter of a car, or a 1 in 3 false alert once inside the car, or even a purposeful false alert thanks to cops surreptitiously smearing weed on a suspect vehicle beforehand — the cop has probable cause to instigate a search of the vehicle and seize any thing he finds.

So when you look at it that way, spending about $180,000 to protect $1.4 million is a reasonable return on investment. Why, look at all the neat stuff cops and DAs got to buy last year…

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