Enforcement vs. regulation

By the 1930s, using marijuana was illegal in Oregon and it has remained that way — except for medicinal use — ever since. A group of local residents is aiming to reverse history.

The Legalize Ashland organization hopes to make adult marijuana use the lowest law enforcement priority and legalize the production of industrial hemp by May 2009.

Eventually the activists want to make legal recreational use of pot, giving it a similar status as alcohol, according to their Web site and MySpace page.

"It is time for Ashland's laws to reflect the priorities of its citizens. The majority of the citizens of Ashland believe that spending money on the enforcement of misdemeanor possession of marijuana is a waste of budget resources, and that public policy should reflect this," the group's Web site states.

Group members did not respond to e-mail messages sent to the address listed on the Web site.

The site states that the group held a meeting Sept. 13 at the Ashland Public Library to discuss putting an initiative on the city ballot next year.

A handful of cities across the country, including Seattle and Oakland, have passed similar laws.

Dan Rubenson, an economics professor at Southern Oregon University, said he would like to see a serious discussion about the implications of legalizing pot.

"I see us spending huge amounts of money for prosecuting and especially for incarcerating people for what I see as victimless crimes and so, from that perspective, I say, 'Let's talk about this,'" he said.

Rubenson, who is not affiliated with Legalize Ashland, endorsed a 2005 economic study urging public officials to engage in an "open and honest debate about marijuana prohibition."

"We believe such a debate will favor a regime in which marijuana is legal but taxed and regulated like other goods," the endorsement states.

According to the "Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States" study by Jeffery A. Miron, a visiting professor at Harvard University, legalizing marijuana would save approximately $7.7 billion annually in law enforcement fees. Taxing pot, like other goods, would yield about $2.4 billion per year and approximately $6.2 billion annually if marijuana was taxed like alcohol or tobacco, the study states.

"I tend to look at things in terms of notions of efficiency and also there's a little bit of a Libertarian flavor there. Why should we intervene in people's lives unless there's a significant reason to?" Rubenson said.

He said the benefits of legalizing marijuana could outweigh the costs.

"I think it's something that's worth talking about. I'm not trying to prejudge the outcome of the conversation, but anytime we're spending so much money on something that doesn't seem to be working, it's time to talk about why we need to keep dong that."

"When we look at it, there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence that making marijuana illegal is having a huge effect on keeping people from using it."

Rubenson said legalizing marijuana could "put criminals out of business" by eliminating some drug trafficking and regulating distribution.

Vicki Brown, division manager for the Jackson County Public Health Department, said she doubts public health officials would support decriminalization of marijuana use.

"I think it would probably drive down the price, which would mean it would be more accessible and I think anything with widespread acceptance will become more popular. It remaining illegal and there being consequences (for using pot) definitely deters use," she said.

Brown said the Public Health Department feels that the costs of using marijuana outweigh any benefits, unless it is being used for medicinal purposes and is recommended by a doctor.

"From our perspective, we don't view it as harmless. It definitely has health consequences and it affects basic respiratory health if the person's smoking it. It definitely impairs judgment and it's definitely used abusively," she said.

Deputy Police Chief Rich Walsh said the Ashland Police Department doesn't focus on enforcing marijuana laws as it is.

"We don't have the manpower or the personnel to put a huge effort into it. It's not one of our priorities. Most of what we enforce (regarding marijuana) is just kind of because we run into it."

It's possible that if using marijuana was decriminalized for adults, illegal use among teens could increase, he added.

"Generally speaking, I think the more that you see adults doing whatever it is that it may be, (teens) are going to see that and think it's OK. And then they may not have the education to know that it's not OK. The question is, are they educated enough to make a good sound decision?

"It's kind of like medical marijuana. You can basically go out and stub your toe and get a medical marijuana card, and say your toe hurts. And that's just not right," Chief Walsh said.

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