Sixteen years ago, Oregon became the first state in the nation to decriminalize marijuana possession. It now may be ready to turn back the clock.
In 1973 the state gained national attention when it decided that people cited for carrying less than an ounce of marijuana should receive a maximum fine of $100.There was a "live-and-let-live" attitude in the state. Legislators of the day said college students and other young people caught with small amounts of marijuana shouldn't face jail terms or lifelong criminal records.
But times have changed. The state that in the 1970s became nearly synonymous with liberal social beliefs is now faced with a booming drug-dealing industry, overflowing prisons, and an influx of California gang members.
"What used to be the age of the flower children is now the age of the Crips and the Bloods," state Rep. Tom Mason of Portland said, referring to two notorious Los Angeles street gangs who have migrated throughout the Northwest.
The result is that Oregon lawmakers now appear ready - if not eager - to recriminalize marijuana possession.
A state House committee chaired by Mason has approved a bill making possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a misdemeanor, carrying a possible jail sentence, and legislative leaders say they expect strong support for the measure.
Oregon now ranks third in the nation in the cultivation of marijuana and production of methamphetamine in clandestine labs, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
The national forests in southern Oregon are riddled with booby-trapped marijuana fields that have prompted forest rangers to carry .357 magnum handguns, and statistics show a higher-than-average drug use rate among teenagers.
The state also is third in the total number of bank robberies, one of the highest per capita serious crime rates in the nation, and, like some other states, has a prison system so overcrowded that people are released after serving only a fraction of their sentences.
Charles Turner, U.S. Attorney for Oregon, blames drugs for the crime wave and Gov. Neil Goldschmidt has launched a drive to build more prisons to house drug dealers.
Goldschmidt, a Democrat, and other top state officials also support tougher penalties for drug users. The governor said marijuana itself has changed in the last 16 years. New varieties are 15 times more potent than in 1973 due to improved growing methods.
"We are not talking about the same drug," he said.
"It (marijuana use) is wrong and we need to send that message to our young people and our adults," added House Speaker Vera Katz.
At the same time, Katz, other legislative leaders and Goldschmidt all say recriminalizing marijuana won't put people in jail because there simply isn't room for them.
"The practical effect of recriminalizing marijuana is nil; that is nil in terms of jail time," Goldschmidt said. "We are adding this to a system that isn't enforcing felony statutes."
Goldschmidt originally proposed increasing the fines for marijuana possession without recriminalizing the drug. Legislators amended that bill to make possession a misdemeanor punishable by a jail term, but legislative leaders balked at the cost of providing court-appointed attorneys for the defendants.
Finally lawmakers settled on a compromise under which first-time offenders would be sent to a diversion program much like that used for drunken drivers.
Even if it doesn't send anyone to jail, recriminalization would help reduce drug use by changing the state's image, according to Jeff Kushner, who runs the state's drug abuse prevention programs.
"I think we have created in the state of Oregon a climate that more or less tolerates drug use," Kushner said.
But marijuana still has strong defenders in the state. When a state House subcommittee passed the recriminalization bill last month, a disgruntled marijuana proponent approached the committee table and offered a small bag of the drug to lawmakers.
"I'm sorry, you can't accept gratuities here," said a stunned Mason, who headed the meeting. "Lobbying in this building has gotten completely out of hand."
The man was promptly received a police citation.