A recent study that draws heavily on Deschutes County found an “overwhelming consensus” among law enforcement officers that Oregon’s marijuana laws are poorly written and confusing.
As a result, this perception has even led some local officers to stop enforcing marijuana laws altogether, according to the February report by Portland State University researchers Kris Henning and Greg Stewart.
“The laws are too convoluted to comprehend,” one officer wrote in a survey response. “If we as law enforcement can’t easily decipher the laws, how can we expect the citizens to be able to understand them?”
Wrote another: “I have just started treating weed as if it is legal regardless of the amount.”
For their report, titled “Dazed and Confused: Police Experiences Enforcing Oregon’s New Marijuana Laws,” Henning and Stewart surveyed 301 police officers in the second half of 2020. Participants included officers and deputies from four agencies: Bend Police Department, Redmond Police Department, the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office and the Klamath County Sheriff’s Office.
Among the results:
■ More than 90% of participants felt that the illegal shipment of marijuana out of state had increased in the past three years.
■ More than 90% believe instances of driving under the influence of marijuana had increased for adults and juveniles.
■ More than 60% of respondents felt Oregon’s marijuana laws make it difficult to determine if someone has broken the law.
In 2014, Oregon voters approved Measure 91, legalizing recreational use of marijuana for people 21 and older. What followed were a number of major changes to Oregon law in a short period of time. This included the Oregon Liquor Control Commission tightening its licensing guidelines in 2018. The next year, the Legislature afforded the agency more authority to restrict marijuana production licenses.
Today, there are six areas where marijuana offenses are still charged, though the offending amounts differ from those prior to 2014: driving while impaired, the illegal use or possession of marijuana and the illegal growing, processing or distribution of marijuana.
In response to open-ended questions in the PSU study, 3 of 4 officers mentioned confusion in understanding the laws. Many officers expressed a feeling they’d been intentionally written to be vague so officers would eventually give up on enforcement.
Officers surveyed spoke to confusion about enforcement of medical vs. recreational cannabis laws. They also discussed a difficulty determining if a person possessed an illegal amount of a drug, or in determining if it was purchased from a licensed retailer. Many officers noted a breakdown in cooperation with state agencies that regulate cannabis, notably the OLCC, the Oregon Health Administration and the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
This lack of clear understanding often manifests in roadside contacts between officers and members of the public, according to the study. Officers said it can be difficult determining the authenticity of documentation showing a person is in lawful possession of large amounts of marijuana. They also reported a near-impossibility in determining if a driver in Oregon with large amounts of marijuana is heading out of state.
“Offenders often claim the product is hemp rather than marijuana which also makes it difficult to determine what the product is,” one officer wrote.