By Teresa Carson
PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - In a primary election race for Oregon's top law enforcement post, the candidate who pledged to protect medical marijuana patients scored a decisive victory Tuesday night over a rival who led a cannabis crackdown last year.
Retired judge Ellen Rosenblum, strongly backed by proponents of liberalized marijuana laws, captured 63 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary for state attorney general, trailed by former U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton with 36 percent, according to early returns.
Because no Republicans sought their party's nomination for attorney general, the Democratic primary victor, Rosenblum, becomes the presumptive winner in November's general election, making her the first woman to claim that office.
With Rosenblum and Holton taking similar stances on issues such as consumer protection, civil rights and the environment, their diametrically opposed views on medical marijuana emerged as a key point of contention in the race, so much so that the campaign was seen largely as a referendum on drug policy generally.
"As attorney general, I will make marijuana enforcement a low priority, and protect the rights of medical marijuana patients," Rosenblum said on her website before the election.
By contrast, Holton called Oregon's medical marijuana law, which has left distribution and cultivation of pot largely unregulated, a "trainwreck" that was putting pot "in the hands of kids" and others who are using it for purposes other than pain management.
In a brief victory statement issued shortly after election officials began to tally the ballots, Rosenblum said she was "honored to have been selected by the voters of Oregon as their choice for the Democratic nominee (for) Attorney General of Oregon."
She made no mention of marijuana or any other specific issues. Nor did Holton, who in his concession statement thanked, among others, the coalition of organized labor groups that backed his candidacy.
But medical marijuana advocates seized on Rosenblum's win as a sign that voters were at odds with the federal government's recent crackdown on storefront cannabis shops in states that have legalized personal use, possession and cultivation of pot for healthcare reasons.
As Oregon's chief federal prosecutor last year, Holton was in the vanguard of that crackdown, sending letters to owners, operators and landlords of storefront pot outlets warning they faced prosecution and civil enforcement actions for involvement in the sale of cannabis.
While medical marijuana is legal in Oregon, the sale for profit of cannabis to any of the state's 55,000 registered cannabis patients is considered illegal, although growers can be reimbursed for supplies and utilities.
Even so, some medical marijuana "cafes" have sprung up in the state, drawing the ire of groups opposed to drug use.
The primary contest unfolded as two groups in Oregon are racing to collect enough signatures for two separate ballot initiatives seeking to legalize marijuana for recreational use in the state.
If their efforts are successful, Oregon voters will join those in Colorado and Washington state who will decide on the matter in November. A total of 16 states, plus the District of Columbia, allow medical marijuana, though cannabis remains classified as an illegal narcotic under federal law.
Some experts predicted a Rosenblum triumph could resonate well outside of Oregon's largely Democratic-registered electorate.
"A victory for Rosenblum could have symbolic power which would reach beyond the state into the national debate," said University of Oregon political science professor Joe Lowndes.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)