Oregon’s Great Pot Debate sparks up controversy

Tuesday night Portland State and KATU News hosted “Oregon’s Great Pot Debate” at Lincoln Performance Hall.

On the supporting side were Richard Harris, former director of Oregon Addiction and Mental Health, and Inge Fryklund, former Prosecutor & Legal Consultant with U.S. State Department. On the opposing side were Dr. Ron Schwerzler, medical services director for Serenity Lane Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, and Joshua Marquis, Clatsop County District Attorney.

“My data is six days old. There are 14,600 people in the Oregon state penitentiary system. 71 of them are there for marijuana related offenses,” Marquis said.

Marquis explained that marijuana has been decriminalized in Oregon for decades. He added that, even if Measure 91 were to pass, those in our state penitentiary system for marijuana wouldn’t be released because Oregon only incarcerates those in possession of large amounts of marijuana.
“Virtually all of them would remain in prison, because even Measure 91 says you cannot sell large amounts [of marijuana] to children,” Marquis said.

Fryklund said that despite recreational marijuana being decriminalized, the cost of keeping it illegal unregulated is high.

“We may have 71 people who are locked up [but] that’s based on a larger number of people who were convicted, a larger number who went to trial, 13,000 arrests and citations for marijuana. Think about all of the police time and court time processing these people. Time that could be spent addressing serious, violent crimes,” Fryklund said.

In his rebuttal, Marquis claimed that Fryklund’s information was misleading.

“An arrest and a citation are totally different things. When there are 10,000 citations, those are citations. Those are not arrests, they’re not on your record. If you are convicted of [possession of] less than an ounce—twice, three, four times—you don’t have a criminal record. There are not criminal consequences unless you’re possessing [more than an ounce],” Maquis said.

The debaters responded to questions regarding the well-being and safety of children and how they would be impacted if Measure 91 were to pass.

“I want to touch on edibles. There have been five infant children deaths in Colorado, who have picked up these drugs from gummy bears, fruity pebbles, what have you. Five infants have died. Now, if that’s not catastrophic I don’t know what is,” Schwerzler said.

The audience reacted strongly to Schwerzler’s claim, yelling, ‘not true’ and calling for him to cite his source. Schwerzler retracted his claim the next day, according to an article published by OregonLive

“After our conversation today, I realized that my statement about children’s deaths in Colorado is in error. There have been admits to ICUs for children who have eaten edibles and were hospitalized. I was in error and deeply regret any consequences of my actions,” Shwerzler said in an email.
Harris emphasized that the safety of children was taken into consideration when Measure 91 was drafted and there would be preventative measures.

“The OLCC has a little over a year to write the regulations and to consider how to manage the question of edibles. The Oregon Department of Agriculture has a hand in determining what is an acceptable edible and making sure that it’s safe for consumption,” Harris said.

“Kids don’t get it from their family, that’s not where it comes from; it comes from pushers and dope dealers. We want to make sure it’s regulated and not available to children and this measure will do that much better than the current criminal environment,” Harris added.

Marquis raised questions as to what the passage of Measure 91 might inflict on medical marijuana enterprises.

“If marijuana is selling for $10, $15, $25 a gram why would people who can grow it grow it for commercial? There’s a lot of people in the medical marijuana community who are concerned that their supply of marijuana is going to be severely affected,” Marquis said.

Russ Belville, audience member and self-employed marijuana activist, offered a question to the opposition.

“If Measure 91 is to fail, do you recommend that I continue buying from criminals? Do you recommend I grow and become a criminal? Do you recommend I go to Vancouver, buy and bring it back and become a criminal? Or do you recommend I cheat the medical marijuana program?” Belville asked.

Belville said he prefers marijuana to alcohol because his father had an alcohol addiction.

“[Marijuana is] still an addictive drug. 10 percent of the population will get addicted,” Schwerzler responded. “Addiction to marijuana is no different than any other addiction to drugs: loss of self-control, damage to the family environment, and withdrawal takes place 2–8 days later. It fits all the criteria of other drugs, it’s just not the severity of other drugs.”

An archived version of the debate can be seen here.