Why The Oregon Attorney General Race Has National Implications For Marijuana Laws

A former federal prosecutor has marijuana activists mobilizing against his campaign.

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Meeting Jim Greig, you wouldn't guess he's a prominent member of Oregon's medical marijuana activist community.

The 62-year-old suffers from Ankylosing Spondylitis, a severe form of arthritis. Greig was diagnosed with the disease in the 1980s when he was 38. At the time he ran an advertising agency, helping to put on more than 150 shows for singers such as Alice Cooper, Tom Petty, and Peter Gabriel. As a self-employed individual, he hadn't bothered to buy health insurance, so when his knee began to give out repeatedly he was forced to pay out-of-pocket to visit emergency rooms.

"It started in my right knee, and in six months it spread to my other knee," he says. "I went from a crutch to a double crutch to a wheelchair within about six to eight months." He's been confined to a wheelchair ever since. He estimates that he is bedridden "80 to 90 percent of the time." Blind in one eye, Greig speaks in a deep, gravely voice, pausing every few moments to catch his breath.

Greig began using marijuana to alleviate his pain sometime around 1995. "It's a great relief," he says. "Cannabis will relax you in ways that no opiate will, and will make it seem like the pain is less intense. Because of it I can do half the amount of opiates and feel better doing it."

He became part of the medical marijuana rights movement when he moved back to Oregon from California in 2004. For the last seven years he has organized the Eugene chapter of the Global Marijuana March, a worldwide event that takes place in hundreds of cities. He's been a board member of the Voter Power Foundation, a medical marijuana activism organization, for about five years. Two years ago, he co-directed a political action committee that advocated for Measure 74, an Oregon ballot initiative that would have permitted the creation of privately-owned, non-profit medical marijuana dispensaries. The measure failed in 2010.

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It's no surprise then that Greig knew who Dwight Holton was when Holton announced earlier this year he was running for Oregon Attorney General to replace departing Democrat John Kroger. Holton had been interim U.S. Attorney for Oregon when federal agents executed search warrants on several marijuana farms in the state last fall. That and other actions from his office had irked medical marijuana and pro-legalization activists, including Greig, so Greig posted a message to a listserv of about 300 other activists suggesting that they begin publicly opposing Holton's candidacy.

Other prominent activists quickly reached out to him, and soon afterward they launched a full-scale attack on Holton, one that has gained the attention of national pro-legalization and medical marijuana activists, several of whom are supporting Holton's opponent, Ellen Rosenblum. A former Oregon Court of Appeals judge, Rosenblum will face off against him in the Democratic primary next Tuesday. No Republican has entered the race, so the winner of the primary will determine the November outcome.

Oregon has a long and storied history with marijuana. In 1973, the legislature voted to make possession of less than an ounce of pot an infraction with a maximum fine of $100. The legislature then tried to reclassify simple possession as a misdemeanor in 1997, only for voters to reject it in a 1998 ballot initiative. That same year, a majority of voters approved another ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, making Oregon one of the first states to do so (this initiative became what is now called the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act). Unlike some states—California, for instance—Oregon does not allow the sale of medical marijuana, but rather allows those granted permission to either grow pot for themselves or designate others to grow it for them.

However, those caregivers are allowed to recoup the cost of growing the marijuana, which has created a legal gray area making it difficult for law enforcement to differentiate between caregivers and sellers of pot. "The problem is the law is so vague, there are so many loopholes," Mark McDonnell, a drug prosecutor in Multnomah County, Oregon, told an Oregonian reporter. He referred to medical marijuana dispensaries in his county as "quasi-legal." There are currently about 55,000 medical marijuana patients in the state.


Corrected on : Corrected 5/15/12: An earlier version of this story misidentified Ankylosing Spondylitis as a form of rheumatoid arthritis.