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Effects of Decriminalization of Marijuana in Oregon

Blachly, Paul, "Effects of Decriminalization of Marijuana in Oregon." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1976; 282: pp. 405-415.


In 1973 Oregon abolished criminal penalties for simple possession of marijuana. This study, assessing the attitudes of persons in the police-judicial-parole system and in the field of education concludes that significant medical problems resulting from marijuana use have decreased since enactment of this law and that there is extreme divergence of opinion regarding this law.

Marijuana was not a problem in Oregon when our state legislature enacted the Uniform Narcotic Act in 1935. Indeed, there was no legislative discussion of marijuana at the time; it was simply included with narcotics as a package. Since then, the use of marijuana has expanded here, as it has elsewhere in this country. Believing that the result of the legislation that controls marijuana was counterproductive, the Oregon legislature in 1973 enacted a bill that abolished criminal penalties for simple possession of marijuana and replaced it with a maximum civil fine of $100.00. What has been the result?With regard to evaluating marijuana legislation, we can speak of measurable parameters, such as the number of arrests, convictions, hours of police investigation, time spent in jail, and dollar cost to the taxpayers for maintaining the police-judicial-penal-probation system. We can also speak of intangible parameters, such as fear, suspicion, freedom, respect for law, interest of students in their studies, or the excitement and games in outwitting authorities. judgment regarding the validity of legislative treatment must rest both on measurable data and on opinion regarding intangibles.A public opinion poll commissioned by the Drug Abuse Council' conducted one year after the law went into effect revealed that 58% of Oregon residents favored the elimination of criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. On the basis of their 802 personal interviews, they also found that three of every 10 people interviewed favored the new state law that made possession a civil offense, akin to a parking ticket. An additional 26% favored changes that made the sale and/or possession of small amounts legal. Nineteen percent of the respondents indicated "yes" to "had they ever used," a percentage that ranged from 46 in the I 8-29-year-old group to 2% in the over 60 age group. Ten percent currently used the drug, with 40% reporting a decrease in use in the past year and only 5% reporting increased use. Only 4% of those not currently using marijuana indicated the possibility of legal prevention as a reason, and 2% stated unavailability. Lack of interest (53%) and health dangers (23%) were the primary reasons for nonuse. Replication of the poll in 1975 showed little change, except that 35% of users reported decreased usage in the past year, and only 9% reported increased usage.

A study prepared by the State Office of Legislative Research one year after implementation of the new law concluded that the law removes small users or possessors from the criminal justice machinery without relaxing criminal penalties for pushers or sellers of the drug and permits the law to concentrate on other matters without precipitating major negative effects.3 Since passage of the law, there have been no efforts to repeal it. In only one political race was the new law criticized, and that person was defeated.

To sample the opinions of those who deal most frequently with the issue of marijuana laws, I mailed an opinionnaire on October 30, 1975 to 186 persons in our police-judicial-parole system. It was sent to all 36 district attorneys in the state of Oregon, all police chiefs in cities with a population greater than 5000, all district and circuit court judges, and to the five members of the Oregon State Parole Board. A somewhat modified opinionnaire was sent to 157 educators, who included all principals of high schools in the state that had an attendance greater than 500 and presidents of all colleges and universities in the state.

To sample medically significant aspects of marijuana use , we compared the number of admissions to Dammasch State Hospital directly due to marijuana in 1971, before the new legislation, with the number admitted for this reason in 12 months preceding the writing of this paper (November 1974 to October 1975).You will find that the responses give not only an idea of current opinion but also, and more intriguingly, an explanation of why there is such vehement divergence of opinion on this matter.


The number of admissions to Dammasch State Hospital directly due to marijuana use decreased from 23 in 1970 to seven during 1975. In the same time, the number of admissions for drug abuse of all types, except alcohol, decreased from 343 to 284. Thus, the percentage of drug abuse admissions due primarily to marijuana was 6.7% in 1970 and 2.5% in 1975.

Opinionnaires were returned from 61% (113) of persons in the legal (police-judicial) system and 71 % (111) of educators within 2 months. In addition to checking preferences, many volunteered comments, and several wrote detailed letters. The questionnaire could be answered anonymously, but persons were requested to indicate their name, address, and phone number if they did not feel constrained to be anonymous. Fortunately, many chose to give their name and affiliation, which helped us to compare subgroups within the legal system. The number of parole board members was too small to list separately.

Comments regarding each of the questions will be made after the results of each question rather than repeating them in Discussion and Comments. Table 1 compares perceptions of drug problems related to marijuana versus drug problems of all kinds. The majority do not feel that the problems have decreased, but there is a wide divergence of opinion. Police (86%) feel that marijuana problems have increased, but only 24% of judges share this view. Only 9% of police feel marijuana problems have decreased, whereas 43% of judges feel they have decreased. Educators and district attorneys have an intermediate view. Police (74%) feel that drug problems of all kinds have increased but this opinion is true of only 25% of educators. Only 13% of police and 8% of district attorneys feel that drug problems of all kinds have decreased, whereas this opinion is true of 42% of educators.

Table 1
Problems From Marijuana Versus Other Drugs

Question n Category Increased (%) Decreased (%) No Change (%) Don't Know (%)

1. Problems related to marijuana have 112 legal, all 49 25 18 8
23 police 86 9 5 0
13 district attorneys 61 15 15 8
21 judges 24 43 14 19
110 educators 41 28 25 6

2. Drug problems of
all kinds have
113 legal, all 60 8 24 7
23 police 74 13 13 0
13 district attorneys 54 8 31 8
21 judges 52 10 29 10
111 educators 25 42 22 11

Table 2 samples what has happened to respect for the law and the police. None of the police felt that respect for the law had increased, but 20% of judges and 21 % of educators felt it had. Sixty-eight percent of the police felt that it had decreased, whereas only 35% of judges and 23% of educators felt that it had decreased. Five percent of the police felt that respect for the police had increased, but 60% felt that it had decreased. Fifteen percent of judges and 19% of educators felt that such respect had increased, but only 20% of judges and 19% of educators felt that it had decreased. judge Don Sanders volunteered:

To answer items 3 and 4, it is necessary to understand the effect of changes in laws relating to possession of marijuana and alcoholic beverages.

Under recent Oregon law, the maximum (and only) penalty for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana (and also for the offense of minor in possession of alcoholic liquors) is $100 fine. As you no doubt know, recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions provide, in substance and effect, that the detention of a juvenile in foster care, children's home or ranches or state institutions may not exceed the maximum time an adult could be sentenced for a like offense. There can be no quarrel with these holdings. It must also be noted that both literally, and as a practical matter juveniles cannot be fined.

It is true these offenses can be said to constitute conduct inimical to the best interest of the juvenile under ORS 419.476(a)(c). However, under the limitations literally imposed by law, no matter what label is attached to the activity, it appears the juvenile cannot be made a ward on account of this conduct. Moreover, the same conduct cannot be the basis of taking further or different action as to a juvenile already a ward of the court for other causes. It would seem to follow irrespective of whether these laws are or are not as they should be as to adults, they have made more problems than they solved in dealing with juveniles. No one more quickly learns the peculiar status juveniles occupy by reason of these laws than the juveniles themselves.

Table 2
Respect For The Law And The Police

Question n Category Increased (%) Decreased (%) No Change (%) Don't Know (%)

3. Respect for the law has 109 legal, all 9 43 35 13
22 police 0 68 32 0
12 district attorneys 17 25 42 17
20 judges 20 35 30 15
109 educators 21 23 42 14

4. Respect for the police has 109 legal, all 7 36 42 16
20 police 5 60 30 5
13 district attorneys 8 23 54 15
20 judges 15 20 50 15
108 educators 19 19 49 13

Table 3 compares prosecution versus conviction of marijuana offenders. Thirty-six percent of police indicated that prosecution had increased and 50% that it had decreased, whereas only 14% of judges felt that convictions had increased. In contrast, 36% of the police felt that convictions had decreased, and 62% of judges felt that they had decreased.

Table 3
Prosecution Versus Conviction Of Marijuana Offenders

Question n Category Increased (%) Decreased (%) No Change (%) Don't Know (%)

5. Number of persons prosecuted for marijuana offenses has 113 legal, all 30 54 11 4
22 police 36 50 9 5
13 district attorneys 61 23 15 0
21 judges 14 71 10 5

6. Number of persons convicted for marijuana offenses has 113 legal, all 32 50 14 4
22 police 45 36 9 9
13 district attorneys 54 23 23 0
21 judges 14 62 19 5

Table 4 compares prosecution versus conviction of other drug offenders. Sixty-four percent of police felt that prosecution of other drug offenders had increased, and 55% judges felt that it had increased. Twenty-five percent of district attorneys felt that prosecutions had decreased, opposed to only 10% of judges. Greater consistency was seen regarding convictions of other drug offenders. Fifty percent police, 33% of district attorneys, and 57% of judges felt that had increased. Twenty-five percent of district attorneys felt that it had decreased, as opposed to 5% of the judges.

Table 4
Prosecution Versus Conviction Of Other Drug Offenders

Question n Category Increased (%) Decreased (%) No Change (%) Don't Know (%)

5. Number of persons prosecuted for other drug offenses has 112 legal, all 55 17 25 4
22 police 64 18 14 5
13 district attorneys 46 23 31 0
20 judges 55 10 30 5

6. Number of persons convicted for other drug offenses has 111 legal, all 50 18 27 5
22 police 50 18 27 5
13 district attorneys 38 23 38 0
21 judges 57 5 33 5

Table 5 indicates that most educators feel that more students are involved with marijuana but that fewer are involved in other drug problems. Question 10 for legal persons attempted to sample the same opinion as question 7 to educators. Clearly, the legal persons (495) see an increase in drug problems in the schools, whereas only 19% of educators see such an increase. Only 5% of legal persons see a decrease of drug problems in the schools, whereas 42% of educators see a decrease in disruption due to drugs.

Table 5
School Problems Relating To Drugs

Question n Category Increased (%) Decreased (%) No Change (%) Don't Know (%)

5. Number of students involved in marijuana problem has 109 educators 47 23 17 13

6. Number of students involved in other drug problem has 110 educators 29 40 15 15

10. School problems related to drugs have 106 legal, all 49 5 14 32
21 police 76 14 5 5
13 district attorneys 46 0 23 30
21 judges 38 5 14 43

7. Amount of school disruption related to drug problems has 108 educators 19 42 36 3

Table 6 reveals that more educators see drug education as increasing, whereas legal persons tend to see it as decreasing.
Table 6
Drug Education

Question n Category Increased (%) Decreased (%) No Change (%) Don't Know (%)

8. & 11. Interests and efforts at drug education have 110 legal, all 25 31 23 21
32 police 36 32 32 0
12 district attorneys 17 58 17 8
20 judges 30 10 15 45
107 educators 40 19 36 5

Table 7 suggests that police do not see themselves doing any less work in drug cases than in the past, whereas district attorneys think police are putting in less effort on drug cases.
Table 7
Police Effort Spent On Drug Cases

Question n Category Increased (%) Decreased (%) No Change (%) Don't Know (%)

9. The proportion of police effort spent on drug cases has 110 legal, all 27 29 22 22
21 police 38 29 33 0
13 district attorneys 23 54 15 8
18 judges 17 25 19 39

The same questions regarding current and future legislation regarding marijuana were asked of legal-police persons and educators. Table 8 shows that to the statement "we should return to the former law regarding marijuana ," a "no" was given by 29% of police, 58% of educators, 62% of district attorneys, and 72% of judges.

"We should liberalize the law further, but not make marijuana legal . . ." was answered "no" by 100% of police, 83% of educators, 75% of district attorneys, and 69% of judges, with an additional 13% of judges undecided.

To the proposition "we should tax, control, and sell marijuana like we do alcohol and cigarettes," "no" was checked by 90% of police, 77% of educators, 61% of district attorneys, and 53% of judges. Interestingly, 23% of judges said "yes," and an additional 24% indicated "no opinion." The comments of judge Edwin Allen help us to understand the considerations reflected in the divergence of opinion:

I am of the opinion that the change in Oregon's marijuana laws has made a complete farce out of certain aspects of the criminal justice system. For example, the possession of three-fourths of an ounce of marijuana subjects an individual to a $100.00 fine. Possession of one and one-half ounces of marijuana subjects a person to a possible sentence of ten years' imprisonment and a fine of $2,500.00. Also, cultivation, transportation and furnishing of the original three-fourths of an ounce mentioned above, subjects a person to the same penalties as would sale of the one and one-half ounces. I am completely at a loss as to how the foregoing is supported by any logic.

I have been advised by law enforcement officials that, in regard to small amounts of marijuana, if that is the only contraband taken in a search, then no action whatsoever is taken and the violation ignored, and I cannot say that I blame them. To issue citations, process reports and come into court when they know that that individual, at a maximum, will be fined $100.00 seems pointless. And, of course, under Oregon Revised Statutes 161.645 the court must consider the financial resources of the defendant in ascertaining fines, and the burden that payment of a fine would impose with due regard to the other obligations of the defendant; and as opposed to the procedure in force before the adoption of the new Criminal Code, that failure to pay a fine resulted in imprisonment, now one must proceed by contempt to secure the payment of a fine. I know of no instances where contempt proceedings were instituted either for fines for possession of less than an ounce, or fines for any other offenses.

I believe that the only use now being made of the Oregon statutes concerning possession of less than an ounce of marijuana by the criminal justice system, is a reason to conduct a thorough search of a person or property, or as a convenient vehicle whereby a drug offense involving other drug charges can be negotiated down to a violation.

The people of this state and this country must make an intelligent decision instead of the illogical decisions they have been making. Either treat marijuana as a drug, the use of which will not be sanctioned by society, and return to the penalties we once had, or remove all penalties concerning marijuana, place it under government control and tax it to the highest level, consistent with making it more attractive to possess through legal channels rather than illegal channels.

Many educators volunteered the statement that whereas marijuana was much less of a problem now than in the past, alcohol was an increasing problem and that it was not unusual to see drunken students in school. The volunteered comments from educators that follow paint the picture more vividly than do the cold statistics:

  • A "Problem" with marijuana is distinct from marijuana "use," and I'm not confident that answers to the above opinionnaire allow us to make that distinction.
  • We should not be more liberal and we should not make marijuana legal; rather, we should continue with a variety of instruments (including opinion polls) to measure the effect of the present legislation.
  • The more marijuana is legalized the more it seems OK to kids. The same with booze. I work closely with this crap (booze and drugs) and the passive attitude our society has adopted doesn't help my job or the kids that are having their lives wrecked.
  • Legalize and sell with stipulations.
  • It is becoming very difficult to sit back and watch bright young minds blown by an assortment of pills and pot. The light penalty for possession of marijuana makes the whole situation a big joke. THE USERS ARE LAUGHING!!!
  • It's good to see the hysteria decrease in the U.S. about marijuana; it's sad we still talk about marijuana but do little about alcohol abuse.
  • It's time society got off their back side, stood up on their hind legs and said no to this legalized garbage.
  • Respect for law and 'police has not declined just because of change in marijuana laws.
  • I see young people being critically destroyed through use of marijuana, from observations and work with a great number of students, students attitudes seem to be changed from positive actions to negative actions toward home, school, and respect for authority-clarity of thought seems to be lost-they seem to be unable to judge the loss of their own normal functioning. By no means should laws be relaxed regarding use and possession for marijuana-a great way to destroy a nation (continued use/sanction).
  • Until conclusive research gives us reliable information on marijuana, we run a risk of making decisions without full knowledge of consequences-neither should we make outlaws" of those using it.
  • The present law was the final blow "which caused parents to give up." Parents now tell me that they have little or no support from juvenile authorities and that police actions are most limited.
  • I feel marijuana is a much less harmful "drug" than either alcohol or cigarettes, both of which are condoned by the FDA and the government. There has been no evidence of marijuana abuse causing crime, etc., whereas the list of alcohol related abuses grows daily.
  • The use of marijuana has simply become a part of the culture and like smoking, some do and some don't. Previously many smoked because it was a challenge to try it. The faddish aspect has worn off. In my estimation, alcohol (which I indulge in myself on occasion) is a much more insidious and deadly form of indulgence. Obesity is not far behind.
  • Drugs-"pot" students are now so cool that they present no problem in school. Alcohol-serious problem presents many problems in all aspects of school life.
  • Many students justify marijuana usage because it is to this generation what alcohol was to prior generations. I cannot recall such excessive use of alcohol while the student was attending classes in school in the prior generations. It was common to see "beer busts" at evening parties and some school-related events, but it was uncommon to see students under the influence of alcohol during the school day. It is common to see students under the influence of drugs during the school day.
  • I did not agree with the passing of the new law on marijuana. Our experience leads us to believe that marijuana is only a stepping stone to the use of other drugs-harder ones.
  • The "Problems" are fewer but there still seem to be more students using it. Students are heavily involved with alcohol.
  • Marijuana users do not exhibit aggressive behavior, therefore we don't have discipline problems with this type of individual. However, they become very passive and unmotivated which means they usually become attendance problems and grades are usually affected.
  • Although I favor Oregon's marijuana legislation, I don't think the changes noted above are consequences of that legislation.
  • Parents no longer appear shocked when faced with the news that the youngster is using it. A large percentage of our fights and assaults are rooted in marijuana usage/sale/thefts.
  • Drug problems are "people problems," we should work on people. There will always. be a drug of one kind or another.
  • The law really hasn't changed things much-people just smoke it more openly.
  • Taxing marijuana would presumably: 1) create more revenue and 2) reduce the attractiveness of it (no longer contraband). 'But I do not think it should be generally available-since reports of I ong-range effects are yet scanty in conclusions.

Representative Comments from the Police-Legal System

  • The problem has not changed, but our internal priorities in law enforcement have as a result of the legislature's action. The use of marijuana is now much more open and thus routine detection particularly with regard to routine traffic stops have maintained a similar level of prosecution in this area.
  • The biggest weakness in the marijuana law is that it does not effectively prohibit youngsters (16, 15-or down to 10 or 11) from using marijuana-at least our alcohol laws make an effort to.
  • A spreading use of alcohol and an apparent decrease in interest in drug activities among young people in this area is the cause for the decreases noted. I doubt that the law change was responsible. I feel that the problem just ran its course. It's still with us but not to the degree that it was. If alcohol related activity was included in the total appraisal of the problem we would have to show an increase in involvement at all levels-schools and after school.
  • Little consideration has been given to the problem of contiguous state lines. In this jurisdiction people from the State of Washington find Oregon a haven for their illegal activities.
  • . . . but the young public are users of marijuana and know we can't do much about their use or possession, so they taunt the police. They no longer attempt to try to hide their use, but since it is illegal, they force police to either not perform their duty and ignore it or waste their time and make an arrest. Let's either legalize it or make it a crime that carries some penalties.
  • The decrease in penalty for what I consider probably the most dangerous of all drugs because it does not appear to be simply convinces our real young people it is all right.
  • (We should return to the former law regarding marijuana) Not without additional manpower! We are finding marijuana use spreading into the adult community. We are also experiencing increasing community pressure to spend more time on marijuana and other drug enforcement.
  • Use of marijuana has reached epidemic proportions. Decriminalization is not the answer, if you legalized burglary, you would have no more burglaries. It is a very effective way for the courts and DA's to reduce their caseloads. Also a very good way to discourage sincere police officers.
  • We seem only to deal with the drug abusers and "followers"-not those who really financially benefit from illegal sales. It really seems a waste to take up criminal justice systems time with "drug abuse." There seems to be a total lack of facilities to deal with individual problems.
  • I don't know where their heads are, I mean the people who passed the new marijuana law. I don't think they have really researched the problem. They probably just talked to the users and not any law enforcement people who work the street and really see the problem. I think they should get their heads on straight and find out the real truth.
  • I believe that the stigma of illegality attached to marijuana for so many years would hinder any efforts to control and tax it in the manner that alcohol and tobacco are presently controlled. In other words, the black market would be too strong for adequate control.
  • The Legislature only hid from the truth when they changed the law. "If you can't whip them, join them." Many of them had personal family problems and they may have felt they would protect their kids.
  • It is difficult to assess the situation in that all drug cases have increased in number, but not necessarily related to the change in the marijuana laws. I believe the police have a tendency to ignore the cases involving less than an ounce.
  • All drug problems and related crime seems on the increase. Excluding pot has probably allowed more police time for heavier drug offenses.
  • My opinion is these new laws are like all laws which impose arbitrary standards. Less than an ounce of marijuana equals $100 fine. Two ounces means a 10 year maximum. One must be right and the other wrong. Both cannot be correct.

Discussion and Conclusions

We must avoid jumping to the conclusion that any changes in the attitudes here discussed result directly from changes in the marijuana law as opposed to spontaneous changes of a cyclical nature that occur in matters of public attitudes.

I had always assumed that an unenforceable law was worse than none at all, believing that it only bred contempt for the law. From a substantial number of the comments, I found that many do not share my belief. They seem to equate ethics with law. At any rate, this body of opinion cannot be ignored by legislators.

The following conclusions seem warranted: medically significant problems from use of marijuana have decreased coincident with decriminalizing marijuana, and there is extreme divergence of opinion regarding the marijuana law and drug problems. Policemen often see it in an entirely different light than do judges and district attorneys. The policeman's job is to enforce the law. An unenforceable law will frustrate, anger, or corrupt him. Educators tend to see it more like judges in some respects and like policemen in others. Educators tend to feel that marijuana and especially other drug problems have decreased among students, whereas policemen feel that the same problems have increased. But educators tend to see the successful students, police the failures.

With regard to existing and further legislative changes, only the police prefer to return to the former law. The majority do not wish to now liberalize the law further. Likewise, the majority do not wish to tax, control, and sell marijuana like alcohol and cigarettes, although it is of interest that 23% of the judges favor this idea, and an additional 24% are undecided. (Seventeen percent of the district attorneys are in favor of this idea, and 17% are undecided.) While relegalization is not an entirely unreasonable possibility in the future, great opposition to relegalization and taxation would be brought to bear in the name of morality by those who now sell marijuana.


  1. Drug Abuse Council. 1974. Survey of Marijuana Use-State of Oregon. Washington, D.C
  2. Drug Abuse Council. 1975. Survey of Marijuana Use-State of Oregon. Washington, D.C.
  3. Bishop, B. 1974. Effects of the Oregon laws decriminalizing possession and use-of small quantities of marijuana. Vol. 74: 96. Legislative Research. Salem, Oregon.
  4. Blachly, P.H. and B.J. Blachly. 1974. Sampling technique for medically significant drug abuse. Int. J. Addictions 9: 885-890.

Copyrighted material. Reprinted by permission.