Three members of Oregon's congressional delegation are demanding U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams explain why his office is prosecuting a Native American teenager for allegedly possessing a gram of marijuana.
In letter that will be mailed tomorrow, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, all Oregon Democrats, ask Williams to give them a full list of the marijuana crimes his office has pursued since 2014, when Oregon voters legalized recreational cannabis.
"Marijuana possession charges have declined in Oregon over the past few years, and we hope to see that trend continue," the delegation writes. "We hope that your office continues this focus on dangerous criminal activity, rather than pursuing crimes involving a substance legal in Oregon."
Last week, a WW cover story examined the prosecution of 19-year-old Devontre Thomas, who was a senior at Salem's Chemawa Indian School — an off-reservation boarding school run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education — when he was accused of buying a gram of cannabis in 2015.
More than a year after his alleged crime, Thomas was slapped with federal charges. Thomas has refused to plead guilty, and is risking a hefty penalty: up to year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
U.S. Attorney's Office spokewoman Gerri Badden declined to comment on pending litigation.
When reached by phone Wednesday afternoon, Thomas' public defender Ruben Iniguez was "ecstatic."
"I'm thrilled to learn that our representatives, despite their obviously busy schedules, are concerned that our federal resources are used to prosecute serious offenders, violent offenders and those persons whose records and actions make clear that pursuing their prosecutions are necessary to protect the public," Iniguez said, "And that the facts of this case make absolutely clear that Mr. Thomas is not even close to one of these persons and our resources shouldn't spent in this way. I'm glad to hear it."
The full text of the letter addressed to Williams is below.
August 4, 2016
US Attorney for the District of Oregon
US Department of Justice
District of Oregon
1000 SW Third Ave Suite 600
Portland, Oregon 97204
Dear Mr. Williams:
We write today deeply concerned about the drug prosecution priorities of the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon and to request a full list of all marijuana possession crimes pursued by your office since 2014. With heroin, methamphetamines, and opioids causing widespread harm to people across the state, your office has substantial drug enforcement priorities, other than the prosecution of simple marijuana possession crimes.
We recognize that marijuana remains a Schedule I Substance under the Controlled Substances Act, but your office retains prosecutorial discretion in expending scarce legal resources in pursuit of those priorities that will make the biggest difference to Oregonians. President Obama has stated that “we have bigger fish to fry” than prosecuting state legal marijuana cases. We agree with this approach.
There are opportunity costs in choosing to prosecute low level marijuana crimes rather than targeting criminal activity linked to violence. In particular, we have concerns with any approach that fails to take into account the devastating effects that marijuana possession convictions have on future employment and education prospects for those who are convicted, especially for a substance that has been decriminalized in Oregon since 1973. Fighting dangerous drug crimes and reducing the prevalence of these drugs and their effects should be the priority of your office.
Marijuana possession charges have declined in Oregon over the past few years, and we hope to see that trend continue. We hope that your office continues this focus on dangerous criminal activity, rather than pursuing crimes involving a substance legal in Oregon. We look forward to receiving your response.