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Oregon decriminalized small amounts in 1973 and legalized drug in 2014; action strips offenses from records.

COURTESY PHOTO - Gov. Kate Brown has issued pardons to an estimated 45,000 for past Oregon offenses of simple possession of one ounce or less of marijuana. Oregon lawmakers decriminalized simple possession in 1973, and voters legalized adult use in 2014. Brown announced her action Monday, Nov. 21.Gov. Kate Brown has pardoned an estimated 45,000 people for past Oregon offenses of simple possession of marijuana, an action that will wipe their convictions from their records and enable them to have easier access to jobs, housing and education.

Brown's action, which she announced Monday, Nov. 21, follows a similar move Oct. 6 by President Joe Biden to remove federal charges of simple possession against 6,500 people.

In both instances, it is unlikely that anyone is currently in federal or state prisons solely on charges of simple possession.

Oregon was the first state to decriminalize possession of one ounce or less of the drug back in 1973. Simple possession was reduced to a violation punishable by a fine, which was raised in 1987 from $100 to $1,000, although that amount is rarely levied.

Brown's action also cancels individual fines and fees amounting to about $14 million.

The Legislature moved in 1997 to restore simple possession to a crime — a Class C misdemeanor — but opponents gathered enough signatures to force a statewide election and voters rejected the proposed change in 1998.

Oregon legalized adult possession and use of cannabis in 2014. It is among 21 states that have done so, counting Maryland and Missouri, where voters passed measures on Nov. 8. Oregon is one of 37 states that allow for some form of medical marijuana, although it is limited in some states. Just three states do not, beyond what a 2018 federal law allows for hemp, which is low in the psychoactive component in cannabis that provides a high.

Brown's statement:

"Oregonians should never face housing insecurity, employment barriers and educational obstacles as a result of doing something that is now completely legal, and has been for years. My pardon will remove these hardships. And while Oregonians use marijuana at similar rates, Blacks and Latinos have been arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionate rates.

"We are a state, and a nation, of second chances. Today, I am taking steps to right the wrongs of a flawed, inequitable and outdated criminal justice system in Oregon when it comes to personal marijuana possession. For the estimated 45,000 individuals who are receiving a pardon for prior state convictions of marijuana possession, this action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions."

Status of pardons

The scope of Brown's pardon affects 47,144 convictions recorded before 2016, if the person was age 21 or older, simple possession was the only charge, and the offense involved no victims. This pardon does not apply to any other offense related to marijuana or other controlled substances, such as driving under the influence.

The Oregon Judicial Department will ensure that all court records associated with these pardoned offenses are sealed, as required by law.

After Oregon voters approved legalization of cannabis in 2014, the Oregon Legislature set a procedure for expungement of records related to marijuana offenses that would not be considered crimes under the new laws.

Biden's action applies to people convicted of simple possession between 1992 and 2021, though it does not affect convictions under federal law for distribution or sale of cannabis.

Sandy Chung, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union/Oregon, said Brown was the first governor to act after Biden's pardon back on Oct. 6.

Chung's statement:

"As Oregonians, we have called for policies that create real safety and wellness for all our communities. The path to justice is through our values of equity, care and humanity — not vengeance or criminalization. We are grateful for Gov. Brown's use of clemency as a powerful tool to address our state's outdated and racially biased practices."

Pending in Congress

Two of Oregon's federal lawmakers, Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Sen. Ron Wyden, are at the forefront of congressional efforts to change its status — cannabis is classified under a 1970 law as a drug with no medical use — and allow access by cannabis businesses to regular banking functions.

The Democratic controlled House has passed such measures seven times, most recently in April 2021, but none has come to a vote in the Senate. The 2021 measure was attached to a defense spending authorization, but was stripped out before final action.

One bill is pending in the Senate Banking Committee, and two other bills — including the House version passed in 2021 — are pending in the Senate Finance Committee, which Wyden leads.

The Oregon Democrat had this to say after Brown's announcement:

"Pardoning simple possession in Oregon is absolutely necessary to repair the damage done by the failed War on Drugs. It is the proper use of governor's clemency powers and I hope that every governor and state legislature will follow suit.

"The American people have consistently shown overwhelming support for expungement and reform of our marijuana laws. It is time for Congress to step up and begin to right these wrongs at the federal level. As we approach the end of this Congress, I will continue to push for meaningful cannabis reform, and will fight to get as much done as we possibly can."

Blumenauer is the chief sponsor of another bill (HR 8454) on its way to Biden after the Senate passed it on a voice vote Nov. 16. The bill fosters further research into medical uses for marijuana and cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive chemical that may have therapeutic uses. It does not change the status of cannabis under federal law. The bill passed the House on a 325-95 vote on July 26.

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