Oregon's medical-marijuana law has always posed problems for police officers, creating a small group of people who can legally use illegal drugs. Which is why after being assigned to monitor the Oregon Medical Cannabis Awards conference in November, Portland Police Officer Joe Welp kept his opinions to himself.
Surrounded by a slew of pot smokers checking out the latest in cannabis-delivery technology, Welp remarked, "This is a political animal, one that I'm not prepared to put a saddle on."
Indeed, Welp almost got bucked--in a story that reveals the Portland Police Bureau's conflicted stance toward a state law its members are sworn to uphold, but don't like much.
Welp wouldn't have been at the Lloyd DoubleTree Hotel for the conference had U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's Drug Enforcement Administration not threatened to seize the hotel as federal property if any illegal pot smoking went on (see "Bud Out!," WW, Nov. 26, 2003).
Hotel officials, to ensure that no bongs fired up on premises, contacted the Portland Police Bureau to hire a couple of off-duty cops for security. The bureau said it preferred to have an on-duty officer show up, and sent Welp.
On the day of the combination pep rally/trade show, Welp, under orders to avoid "compromising" positions, did his best to avoid me. But at one point, as he stood next to an elderly marijuana patient wearing a crown of plastic marijuana leaves, I was able to corner him with a disposable camera. The cop protested and tried to duck away, but when St. Cannabis grabbed him around the waist, Welp had little choice but to put his arm around the guy, crack a smile and make the best of it.
Willamette Week didn't run the picture at the time, so that should have been the end of Welp's woes, except that he casually mentioned the encounter to a sergeant days later. "I had to confirm with him that he was not joking, that the picture was taken," Sgt. Mark Schaffer wrote in a disapproving Nov. 26 memo to Assistant Chief Stan Grubbs. Schaffer said Welp had been cautioned not to do anything to "legitimize" the event, including getting photographed, and "not do anything that could have a negative reflection upon the Police Bureau." Schaffer's memo prompted an internal probe of Welp's conduct.
While his bosses worried he was being too chummy with the potheads, civil libertarians were demanding to know why Welp was at the event in the first place. Concerned that the uniformed officer had a chilling effect on a legal gathering, American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Andrea Meyer filed a public-records request, which turned up Schaffer's letter.
Madeline Martinez, one of the conference's organizers, says Welp did a great job in a tough position, going out of his way to engage participants in the spirit of "community policing" rather than intimidation. "It's not fair," she says. "It's sad that he's being disciplined for being a nice guy."
Well, maybe not. Asked how an officer could face discipline for being photographed against his will in a public place, Cmdr. Brent Smith told WW the photo probe would be dropped.