Medical marijuana advocates have a message for Democratic leaders and federal prosecutors with an eye on political office: Don't mess with pot.
Pushing back against a federal effort to stem the proliferation of medical marijuana operations, one of the nation's largest drug policy groups claimed credit Wednesday for the defeat of a former federal prosecutor who was the early favorite to win the Democratic primary for Oregon attorney general.
As interim U.S. attorney, Dwight Holton called Oregon's medical marijuana law a "train wreck" and oversaw efforts to crack down on medical marijuana clubs and grow operations that he said were fronts for illegal marijuana sales. Federal prosecutors have led similar crackdowns in other states that have legalized marijuana for medicinal use.
"Drug war rhetoric and tactics will not be tolerated," said Jill Harris, managing director for the campaign arm of Drug Policy Alliance.
Retired state appeals court judge Ellen Rosenblum said she'd make marijuana enforcement a low priority. She easily defeated Holton with the help of Harris' group and its allies, which chipped in at least a quarter of Rosenblum's total campaign cash.
"What we're hoping, and what we assume, is that any U.S. attorney who's thinking of running for statewide office in a Democratic Primary anywhere in the country is going to think twice now before adopting a highly aggressive posture toward the medical marijuana law," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director Drug Policy Alliance and its campaign branch, Drug Policy Action.
Rosenblum downplayed the role of the marijuana vote in her victory in a brief interview following her victory Tuesday night. With most votes counted, she defeated Holton 64 percent to 36 percent.
"There's lots of issues that played into my victory, and that may well be one of them," Rosenblum said of the surprising emergence of medical marijuana as a defining issue.
About 55,000 people are registered marijuana users in Oregon.
Sixteen states allow people with a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana, an issue that has long been a source of tension with the federal government. Federal officials have said some state medical marijuana laws are being used as cover to grow and sell pot for the black market. Law enforcement agencies have cracked down on some pot growers, dispensaries and clubs in several states, including California, Colorado and Oregon.
"The Department of Justice is focusing its limited resources on significant drug traffickers, not seriously ill individuals who are in compliance with applicable state medical marijuana statutes," said Allison Price, a department spokeswoman.
Campaign finance records show Rosenblum raised $600,000 through May 9, including $80,000 from Drug Policy Action and $70,000 from John Sperling, Chairman of Apollo Group Inc., who has financed medical marijuana campaigns nationally. Oregon has no caps on campaign contributions.
Citizens for Sensible Law Enforcement, a local organization working on a ballot measure to legalize marijuana, spent another $40,000 to boost Rosenblum, much of it on radio ads attacking Holton over marijuana.
"We're glad to have played a role in her victory," said Bob Wolfe, one of the organization's directors. "But I do think Dwight's defeat is directly related to his stance on marijuana."
Holton declined to comment.