Grass Ceiling

Elected with pot money, Ellen Rosenblum, Oregon's new attorney general, faces many legal conflicts of her own making.

Ellen Rosenblum will make history June 29 when she takes office as Oregon's first female attorney general. But that's not the only precedent her swearing-in will set: Rosenblum is the first statewide official in Oregon whose election was fueled by drug money.

The nation's increasingly vocal medical marijuana and drug legalization lobby kicked in at least a third of the $699,000 Rosenblum raised in her May 15 Democratic primary win over Dwight Holton.

She will command the Oregon Department of Justice, an agency that regularly takes positions on marijuana-related issues. Given her willingness to pander to the marijuana crowd, Rosenblum takes office having created significant political and legal conflicts of interest for herself as the state's top law enforcement official.

Rosenblum, who is married to WW publisher Richard Meeker (see editor's note), is being sworn in to fill the remaining term of outgoing Attorney General John Kroger, who resigned to take the presidency at Reed College. She is seeking to win election to the job in November.

Her election marks an increasing reliance on special-interest money in the Oregon AG's race. Four years ago, Kroger raised eyebrows when contributions from public-employee unions accounted for 35 percent of the $1 million he spent winning election. The unions sought to punish Kroger's opponent, former state Rep. Greg Macpherson (D-Lake Oswego), for backing public-employee pension reform.

But the marijuana lobby wants Rosenblum to alter how the state enforces its drug laws, especially following local and federal law enforcement efforts to crack down on medical marijuana operations.

She's already pledged to do so. "As Attorney General," Rosenblum wrote on her campaign website, "I will make marijuana enforcement a low priority, and protect the rights of medical marijuana patients."

Janice Thompson of Common Cause Oregon, a campaign finance watchdog group, says citizens should be concerned about the kind of concentrated support Rosenblum received. "If a campaign contributor is writing a check for $50,000 or $75,000, they want something," Thompson says. "Candidates, contributors and the public are all stuck in a broken system."

Rosenblum says she never solicited marijuana donors and thinks they were focused more on defeating Holton than electing her.

"I didn't ask for this money," she says. "I have made no promises to anyone. I intend to act professionally and ethically and not be beholden to any large or small donors."

Rosenblum, 61, enjoyed a career as a federal prosecutor and 22 years as a Multnomah County and Oregon Court of Appeals judge before running for AG. She handily defeated Holton, a former U.S. attorney for Oregon, 65 percent to 35 percent. Kroger, a Democrat, had announced in October 2011 he wouldn't seek re-election, and no candidates filed for the Republican primary, although the GOP may yet mount a challenge against Rosenblum in November.

Rosenblum made much of her experience and her potential role as Oregon's first female AG. But her success won more attention for the issue she exploited to win.

"Why the Oregon Attorney General Race Has National Implications for Marijuana Laws," wrote U.S. News & World Report. As a Reuters headline put it, "Supporter of Oregon Medical Pot Law Wins Attorney General Race."

Historically, Oregon's attorney general acts as the state's chief law enforcement officer and also provides legal advice and representation to state agencies. The state Department of Justice also handles criminal appeals and, in some cases, prosecutions.

But AGs have increasingly moved away from the roles of regulator and counselor.

"The attorney general should be above politics and represent the law and the interests of everyone in the state," says Prof. Ron Tammen, director of the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. "In many states, attorney general has become a much more politicized post."

Tammen—a Rosenblum supporter—says he thinks the new attorney general will not operate that way.

Yet her new job will create endless opportunities for conflict between DOJ's duty to uphold Oregon's laws and the desires of her greatest source of financial support.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Oregon since 1998, and 55,000 Oregonians now carry cards that allow legal consumption. Growers may supply medical marijuana users but not sell pot to anyone else. Voters rejected a 2010 measure to regulate dispensaries, but dozens have since opened to serve smokers.

Media reports—including those in WW and an ongoing series of stories in The Oregonian—have revealed abuses and loopholes in the system, and many law enforcement officials distrust the program.

"Medical marijuana is absolutely unregulated," says Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, who supported Holton, Rosenblum's opponent in the primary.

The Oregon DOJ provides legal guidance to state agencies on the state's medical marijuana law, but the agency's work runs much deeper. 

In the criminal justice area, DOJ lawyers prosecute high-level drug dealers. They also defend all marijuana convictions at the appellate level. 

A marijuana case charged last year by the Oregon DOJ led to the arrest of a Washington County medical marijuana grower who, officials allege, was illegally selling dope.

Rosenblum says her approach will have nothing to do with who helped her win. "I'm going to follow the law in every case," she says.

Rosenblum's position during the campaign favored Oregon's leniency for medical marijuana over the tougher stance taken by federal prosecutors. But recent civil cases illustrate the tightrope Rosenblum must now walk.

In a 2009 Oregon Supreme Court case, DOJ lawyers argued that federal laws prohibiting marijuana use trumped an Oregon marijuana card holder's right to keep his job after testing positive for the drug.

On the other hand, the agency filed a brief in the Oregon Supreme Court opposing county sheriffs who wanted to deny concealed weapons permits to medical marijuana card holders. 

"Every case will be different," she says. "Sometimes there may be three or four different laws, and you have to look at how they interact with each other."

Rosenblum may face a major test this fall. Petition circulators are trying to qualify two different legalization measures for the ballot. If either passes, Rosenblum would have to direct Oregon's 36 district attorneys how to implement new laws that would sharply conflict with more stringent federal laws.

"That's when the rubber really hits the road," Marquis says, "because most prosecutors believe there's no question about federal supremacy."

Holton kicked open the door for pro-marijuana activists to back Rosenblum. As U.S. attorney, Holton had earlier issued a warning—signed by 34 DAs—that "the sale of marijuana for any purpose, including as medicine, violates both federal and Oregon law and will not be tolerated."

But the money didn't start flowing to Rosenblum until after a March 20 Eugene City Club debate, where Holton called Oregon's medical marijuana law a "train wreck.” 

Rosenblum found her issue, and she wasn't shy about selling it. She compared Oregon's medical marijuana law to another pioneering piece of legislation, the Bottle Bill (without noting organized crime is not typically involved in the state's glass and aluminum recycling industries).

On April 22, Rosenblum visited a Tigard marijuana dispensary—the type of facility Holton and prosecutors have targeted.

"I thought that was really unfortunate," Marquis says. "I would hope that the attorney general-about-to-be would not make that error in judgment again."

Rosenblum says she merely wanted to learn about how dispensaries operate.

The marijuana supporters cheered Rosenblum's boldness with cash. The New York-based group Drug Policy Action kicked in $80,000; Citizens for Sensible Law Enforcement, one of the Oregon ballot measure groups, pounded Holton with $53,000 worth of radio ads; and John Sperling, a Reed College alum living in Arizona, sent in $70,000.

Rosenblum's pursuit of pot money has exposed the DOJ to other unforeseen conflicts.

Sperling became a billionaire after founding the Apollo Group Inc., a for-profit education company that operates the University of Phoenix. 

WW has learned the Oregon DOJ is part of a multi-state group examining the practices of for-profit colleges. As AG, Rosenblum will now have to oversee an investigation into an industry whose leading figure gave her $70,000.

Rosenblum says Sperling's contribution was arranged by Drug Policy Action without her involvement. She says she was unaware of a previous state lawsuit against Sperling's company or the current DOJ investigation.

"I didn't know anything about him," she says. "I was kind of in the dark."

Meanwhile, the pot money keeps coming. On May 18, three days after the primary election, Rosenblum accepted another check, this one for $4,000, from a Jacksonville grower, High Hopes Farms. 

FACT: Rosenblum's largest non-marijuana contribution was $25,000 from Nike Chairman Phil Knight. Rosenblum says she does not know Knight but notes he is close to former AG and University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer, whom she considers a mentor.


On May 15, Ellen Rosenblum won the Democratic primary for Oregon attorney
general. Those of you who are regular readers of Willamette Week know this; you also know that Ellen is married to my business partner, WW publisher Richard Meeker. 

WW did not cover the AG primary race because, as I wrote in these pages in January, doing so presented a potential conflict of interest. Until now, the newspaper hasn't written about Rosenblum—though WW did donate advertising to her campaign, a decision some took issue with.

Now that Gov. John Kitzhaber has appointed Rosenblum to serve out the term of departing AG John Kroger, we will report on her in that office—-but not without some accommodation.

First, readers should understand Meeker's role here. As publisher, he has never been involved in WW's news coverage, nor does he participate in endorsement conversations or news meetings. I'm the one who oversees the paper's editorial content.

Because Meeker and I have jointly owned WW for nearly 30 years, there's a perception—and perhaps a reality—that it would be difficult for me to objectively assign or edit stories involving his wife.

As a consequence, I've decided that all decisions about coverage of Rosenblum and the Oregon Department of Justice, while she is serving as attorney general, will be made by WW's managing editor for news, Brent Walth. He may choose to discuss stories with me. But his word, not mine, is final.

This is uncharted territory for this company, but I promise you that this newspaper's goal is to cover Rosenblum and the office of AG without fear or favor.

We trust you will let us know how we are doing. —Mark Zusman

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