Federal Grant Money Being Used to Oppose Oregon Pot Initiative

Rep. Earl Blumenauer says the Oregon Marijuana Education Tour is using federal funds to promote its anti-pot agenda. (The Oregonian)

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) is demanding that the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) investigate possible misuse of federal funds spent on opposing Oregon's ballot Measure 91.

The Congressman alleges that a series of events around Oregon being planned for the first week of October featuring Kevin Sabet of Project SAM as a keynote speaker are not really educational events but rather a set of thinly-veiled campaign stops intended to rouse opposition to the ballot initiative that would legalize and regulate adult use of marijuana in Oregon if passed by voters in November.

In his letter to SAMHSA Administrator Pamela Hyde and ONDCP Acting Director Michael Botticelli
Blumenauer writes: “Newspaper advertisements for the tour have been paid for by federal taxpayer dollars in at least one Oregon newspaper and there has been an effort to try and promote the ads and get them placed in other venues. My understanding is the point of contact for these advertisements is a staff member for a non-profit that contracts with Jefferson County and receives federal dollars. She is also, according to the Oregon Secretary of State Voters Pamphlet, the Director of the No on 91 Political Action Committee.”

Blumenauer's missive further notes, “In addition, the same non-profit published a guide titled 'Marijuana Educational Ads Statewide Media Campaign Summary,' which provides a strategy on how the ads should be targeted, including a category for 'General Voters.' Using public dollars to try and target 'General Voters' seems very suspect and should be investigated.”

In the letter, Blumenauer also observes that Oregon state law forbids public employees from using taxpayer funds for political purposes, which includes activity around ballot measures, and that the Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that such employees could be held personally liable if they're found to have done so, and could be forced to repay such funds.

At a press conference in his Portland office on Sept. 5, Blumenauer said, “What I want to have happen is the federal government investigates the misuse of federal dollars. If they've been spending federal dollars setting this up, and if they did it in 2012, they should be held accountable.”

The uproar has already resulted in some cancellations and other changes to the schedule (above). Currently, it's not known which dates are still on or what venues are being used. The question of who is actually coordinating things on the ground in Oregon is even somewhat up in the air. The original flyer for the “Oregon Marijuana Education Tour,” including a list of events from Oct. 1-7, is posted here.

Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) is essentially a vehicle for Sabet and former Representative and recovering addict Patrick Kennedy to bloviate about marijuana without having to publicly associate themselves with wackjobs like the Drug Free America Foundation - an organization with which Sabet has close ties. Those groups (DFAF, SOS and DWI among others) held an event called the “Save Oregon Summit” back in April ostensibly to agitate against a dispensary regulatory law which had already passed and was going into effect. Arguably, this too was an attempt to rouse opposition to ballot measures which were then being circulated. However, since none had yet achieved ballot status, reformers and legalization advocates were less concerned with those implications. At least no complaints were filed alleging electoral activity.

At the press conference, Rep. Blumenauer, who's running for reelection, also stated: “It looks to me like there have already been federal dollars that have been used in terms of setting it up and personnel, but going forward, it's fair game. I welcome the debate. I think for too long we actually haven't had an open discussion of the consequences of our current policy: how it's destroying lives right now, how it doesn't work, how no kid I know has a rougher time getting a joint than a six-pack. In fact, nobody is checking the driver's license of a kid who's buying dope, and we are creating all sorts of problems."

Rep. Blumenauer: 'I voted in the Oregon legislature when Oregon became the first state in the country to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana (in 1973) and we're still arresting thousands of people for marijuana possession in Oregon. Three-quarters to two-thirds of a million people nationally. And we are still hampering legitimate uses, for example hemp. It's  a struggle to just allow Oregon farmers to grow hemp, where hemp products are perfectly legal, and you can't smoke enough hemp to have a consequence. Oregonians are having problems right now with a misguided policy, and I think it's time to go out and deal with it. But we will deal with it, I hope, with the individual campaigns and what people do individually, not using federal dollars.'

One of the people involved in the tour and the No on 91 campaign, Josh Marquis, is the District Attorney for Clatsop County. He's alleged that because Rep. Blumenauer is participating in the International Cannabis Business Conference in Portland on Sept. 13-14, the Congressman has no standing to complain about other officials getting involved in the opposition campaign. Blumenauer pointed out, however, that as a U.S. Congressman, he's not bound by those same rules, and more to the point, that an industry event catering to business people in a perfectly legal industry is a totally different animal.

"This tour is to coincide with the time that the ballots go out," he addd. "Gee, isn't that an odd coincidence? And oh, the last time this happened was two days before the ballots went out in 2012. Coincidence?”

The federal government has a long history of interfering in state ballot measures involving drug policy reform, going at least as far back as 1986 and the Oregon Marijuana Initiative/Ballot Measure 5 vote. I ran the Portland office for OMI at that time. Two U.S. Attorneys had sent out letters from their offices to every elected official in the state, urging them to oppose the initiative and to pass resolutions against it. OMI and NORML filed a complaint with the Justice Department alleging violations of the Hatch Act, which forbids federal employees from getting involved in political campaigns while on government time. We thought surely that using government resources was a step too far. We were wrong: the Hatch Act has a specific exemption allowing federal employees to get involved in ballot measure campaigns. Years later, the MPP discovered to its dismay that when they filed a similar complaint regarding ONDCP's interference in the 2002 Nevada Question 9 initiative the Hatch Act had not changed.

In 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder railed against California's Prop 19, warning that his department would vigorously enforce federal law against sellers and users.

But in 2012, when three states had legalization initiatives on the ballot, the Feds went silent. Same again this cycle: ONDCP - the office that would or could not say whether methamphetamine was more dangerous than marijuana - is not involving itself (yet) in the Measure 91 campaign.

There was no real evidence of direct involvement by federal employees in the 2012 ballot measure votes in Colorado or Washington - or in Oregon, for that matter. As bad as the Obama administration has been, I have to give them some credit for starting to let states decide on these matters, in stark contrast to past administrations. Let's hope they never go back to their old ways.

For those interested in the Oregon Measure 91 campaign, especially if you want to donate, check out their website. The election in Oregon starts in just a month, and lasts through Election Day, Nov. 4. Anyone from anywhere in the U.S. can make a donation.

Doug McVay

Doug McVay

Writer and KBOO radio host based in Portland, Ore. He's also editor of DrugPolicyFacts.org.