This fall Oregonians will decide the fate of Measure 91, which would legalize the production and sale of marijuana for recreational use. Because Oregonians vote by mail, that process begins on October 15, when ballots will be mailed to registered voters. The taxpayer-subsidized Oregon Marijuana Education Tour, a week-long series of "public forums coordinated by prevention specialists," begins two weeks before then. The tour, which features several prominent opponents of Measure 91, is avowedly nonpolitical, supposedly aimed merely at answering the questions of people "concerned about the impact of marijuana on youth in Oregon." But the timing and the one-sided lineup of "marijuana experts"—who include Clatsop County District Attorney Joshua Marquis, spokesman for the No on 91 campaign, and Kevin Sabet, co-founder of the anti-pot group Project SAM—suggest an intent to sway voters, which is legally problematic because the sponsors receive federal grant money.
Last Friday, in a letter to the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) requested "an immediate investigation to determine if federal taxpayer dollars are being used illegally to influence a statewide election." He argued that "the bias of the speakers selected, the overall one-sided focus of the events, and the proximity between these events and the upcoming elections are cause for concern."
According to guidance from the Office of Management and Budget, nonprofit organizations that receive federal money are prohibited from using it to "influence the outcomes of any Federal, State, or local election, referendum, initiative, or similar procedure, through in kind or cash contributions, endorsements, publicity, or similar activity." Originally the main sponsor of the marijuana forums was BestCare Treatment Services, a chain of rehab centers that runs Jefferson County's substance abuse prevention program and receives money from the federal Drug-Free Communities Support Program, which aims to "prevent and reduce youth substance use." BestCare dropped out of the anti-pot tour last month after critics raised questions about the possible misuse of federal grant money.
BestCare's executive director, Rick Treleaven, told The Oregonian that as initially planned the conference kicking off the marijuana tour would have cost about $15,000, with half of that coming from federal grant money. The paper reported that "organizers at the other venues said they also planned to use a mixture of public and private funds." After BestCare withdrew, Tigard Turns the Tide, an anti-drug coalition that receives money from the same federal program, took over the marijuana tour, assisted by a $10,000 donation from the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association, which vigorously opposes Measure 91.
"We're concerned about the federal funds they're using," says Rebeka Gipson-King, a communications officer at the Oregon Health Authority's Addictions and Mental Health Division. In an August 28 email message, Karen Wheeler, the division's administrator, reminded county prevention officials that "the State of Oregon and sub-recipients are prohibited from using federal funds for political or lobbying purposes." She added that "if you are unsure about whether or not a specific activity falls into the category of lobbying or political activity, please consult your organization's legal counsel."
Gipson-King says her agency "decided not to participate" in the marijuana forums because, "considering the speakers and the timing," they seemed to be aimed at defeating Measure 91. She notes that "public employees are not supposed to be participating in political activities" while serving in their official capacity. Among other things, state law prohibits public employees from working to "promote or oppose" a ballot initiative "while on the job during working hours." Yet the schedule for the Oregon Marijuana Education Tour includes the names and office numbers of public employees such as Matthew Stevenson, coordinator of the Polk County Tobacco Prevention and Education Program, and Lindsey Adkisson, a prevention specialist with the Lane County Health & Human Services Prevention Program.
State law also bars government employees from using public money to advance political causes and, as Blumenauer points out, makes them personally liable for misused funds. In addition to the marijuana forums, Blumenauer cites 16 anti-pot ads "developed by prevention staff in Jefferson, Grant, Deschutes, and Crook counties" as part of a "statewide media campaign" aimed in part at "general voters," which certainly suggests a political goal. A 1993 letter from the Oregon Attorney General's Office offered this guidance regarding the distinction between public education and political propaganda:
Public bodies may use public funds to inform voters of facts pertinent to a measure, if the information is not used to lead voters to support or oppose a particular position in the election. However, we also have pointed out that "informational" material may be found to "promote or oppose" a measure even if it does not do so in so many words if the information presented to the public clearly favors or opposes the measure and, taken as a whole, clearly is intended to generate votes for or against a measure.The response from the folks behind the Oregon Marijuana Education Tour, who also happen to be the folks behind the No on 91 campaign, is telling. "It's really concerning because it's political bullying of the first degree," Marquis, the D.A. who speaks for No on 91 and plans to speak at the marijuana forums, told KOIN, the CBS station in Portland. "To basically accuse grassroots educators of violating federal law and scaring the bejesus out of them—I'm used to this type of contact politics. Most of those people are not."
Complaints that Blumenauer is trying to squelch one side of the debate about legalization belie the claim that "these are educational events, not political events," as Sabet insists, or that "we aren't there to sway voters," as Connie Ramaekers of Tigard Turns the Tide says. If "grassroots educators" like Ramaekers want to campaign against marijuana legalization without running afoul of state and federal law, here is an easy solution: Don't do it on the taxpayer's dime.