30 Sep

Oregon’s Dope Day points the way for a line of states

State Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, was sure of only one thing: “There will be lines.”

But people are likely to be mellow about it.

When recreational marijuana becomes legal in Oregon tomorrow, Burdick, co-chair of the special legislative committee that drew up the rules, will be an interested observer – although not on line herself. Her prediction is based on the first-day experiences of Washington and Colorado, the states that last year sent up the nation’s first legal smoke signals.

On those states’ first Dope Days, urban sales outlets had waiting lines like Portland brunch places – which, as part of this process, could also end up with longer lines.

Of course, as Burdick points out, Washington and Colorado had some early supply issues. Whatever problems Oregon might have during the transition, we seem unlikely to run low on supply.

Marijuana, after all, is the great cash crop of large parts of Oregon, and the state’s medical marijuana system has already encouraged home growing to the point where marijuana plants might at any moment qualify as state fair entries.

Small-scale recreational growth and use became legal July 1. With Oregon already, four decades ago, being the first state to decriminalize possession, making it less than a misdemeanor, it’s hard to think that Oregon’s previous legal regimen significantly curtailed consumption around here.

Unlike in Colorado, Oregon won’t be selling marijuana in edible forms, despite our rising national reputation for creative cooking.

Still, tomorrow, just under a year since Oregonians voted for legalization in the 2014 election, the rules will change. Oregonians will legally be able to buy small amounts of recreational marijuana from the state’s sprouting numbers of medical marijuana dispensaries, where the waiting lines might be expected. The change won’t immediately increase the number of outlets, but it will simplify the process.

Oct. 1, 2015: The day Oregonians will be freed from having to claim their back hurts.

The state is still working on the process for licensing its own retail marijuana outlets, which won’t come into effect until sometime next year. That might be the more dramatic change, although the state’s record at selling medical insurance might not be very encouraging. We should be especially careful of any state musical TV spots for marijuana.
It’s also not clear how the state will do in changing brand loyalty among heavy consumers. (The great bulk of Oregon’s lottery revenue comes from a relatively small part of the population, and marijuana income might well follow the same pattern.) Many of them already have their own, um, retail suppliers. In Seattle, it’s reported that most longtime consumers have remained with their traditional tax-free suppliers, which may not be very civic-minded but does cut down on paperwork.

Oregon will be taxing at a lower, less discouraging level than Washington, setting up another issue. As the Brookings Institute, the D.C. think tank, pointed out, Oregon is the first state to legalize marijuana that borders another state that’s legalized marijuana, setting up striking state possibilities. A lower tax rate in Oregon could stimulate interstate trade, as Oregonians continue to head to Washington to buy fireworks while Washingtonians come to Oregon to buy a different kind of fireworks.

The state government is still working to figure this out, and the legislative committee will meet today to try to roll out the last few ounces. But this time, unlike the long-ago deregulation, it does seem like Oregon is at the front of a national wave, and might actually get to show the country how to do it.

Legalization is up next in California and Ohio, and Florida is looking at medical marijuana, which considering Florida’s medical consumption could blow the national supply right there. The federal government still bans marijuana, but the Justice Department has officially lost interest, and even the Republican candidates for president haven’t shown much interest in taking it on again. So far, only New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has vowed to go after the legalizing states, and if all Oregon has to fear is a Christie administration, the whole state might as well light up.

Former Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., recently said that he always knew that after one state achieved gay marriage, the whole country would follow. Marijuana legalization won’t be an exact parallel – whatever happens in the states, the Supreme Court is unlikely to discover a constitutional right to toke – but as with gay marriage, liberalization achieved without social collapse is likely to spread.

We don’t know how long it’s likely to take.

But you could imagine states getting in line.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 9/30/15.

29 Sep

Oregon slow to address capital punishment, but the pope is on it

For whatever reason, Pope Francis, in his historic visit to the United States last week, did not make it to Portland.

Maybe nobody told him about our South American food carts, or someone was worried about the Popemobile getting bogged down in a sea of bicycles.

But as he spoke to Congress Thursday, there were passages that seemed to speak directly to us.

When he spoke about immigrants – “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners… When the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past” – Francis might have found a more responsive audience here than among most of the congressmen and senators he was addressing.

When he pleaded for steps “to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” he may not have made much progress among senators who consider global warming “the greatest hoax in human history.” But Francis might have gotten a closer hearing in a place that, once again, has just had the hottest summer in its history, on a coast in the midst of a near-Biblical drought, with countless counties declared disaster zones.
Francis may have spoken most topically to Oregon when he declared his determination “from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty… Recently, my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

Rehabilitation of those on Oregon’s Death Row may seem a distant and implausible vision. But Francis was speaking in the same week as yet another development in Oregon’s continuing inability to find an acceptable way of dealing with the death penalty, leading to a deepening discomfort with having one at all.

Several years ago, former Gov. John Kitzhaber – who during the 1990s became the only Oregon governor in the last 50 years to sign execution orders, although our Death Row has become a high-density residential area – announced that as long as he was governor, there would be no more executions. Some people complained that Kitzhaber hadn’t said this when running for the job in 2010, but his clear opposition to capital punishment didn’t keep him from being re-elected in 2014.

(What kept him from still being governor, of course, was something else entirely.)
When Secretary of State Kate Brown succeeded Kitzhaber in February, she said she would continue the execution moratorium while setting up a process to assess it. As The Oregon’s Denis C. Theriault reported last week, not much has happened to move things along. Brown spokeswoman Kristen Grainger did tell Theriault that Brown has directed her office attorney, Ben Souede, to seek “legal advice about the practical aspects related to capital punishment in Oregon,” although there might not be any actual recommendations until deep into next year, when Brown runs for reelection.

The problems with Oregon’s death penalty have long been clear: The highly expensive legal process takes decades; Oregon has 34 inmates on Death Row, but no executions actually expected for years; the only executions scheduled in the decades since the death penalty was restored were at the request of the convict, not exactly a testament to its deterrent power.

This year, a similar situation caused the legislature in deep-red Nebraska to abolish its death penalty, and then override the governor’s veto. Last month, the Connecticut Supreme Court, ruling that the state’s recent abolition extended to all its Death Row inmates, quoted Ninth Circuit appeals judge Alex Kosinski: “[W]e have little more than an illusion of a death penalty in this country. … Whatever purposes the death penalty is said to serve— deterrence, retribution, assuaging the pain suffered by victims’ families—these purposes are not served by the system as it now operates.”

From either the pope’s principles or Kosinski’s reality, it’s hard to argue for Oregon to continue pretending to have capital punishment.

“A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism,” Francis said Thursday. “A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.”

On a number of issues, this advice might have arrived too late for this Congress.

But it might still work in Salem.

NOTE: This commentary appeared in the Sunday Oregonian,9/27/15.

29 Sep

We can’t just dump the homeless problem on the cops

We leave cops all the dirty jobs the rest of society doesn’t want to do. That means dealing with the mentally ill, dealing with teenagers, and dealing with the homeless.

We don’t give them resources or training for it, but we figure cops do get paid.

But we do know that there’s no point in arresting the homeless. It’s very expensive, it can cause actually dangerous people to be squeezed out of jail, and afterwards, there’s really no place to release them to. On the other hand, there are things we can’t let homeless people – or anybody else – do in public.

Los Angeles has a program called HALO, which refers arrested homeless people to the city’s Department of Mental Health. Treatment can range from three months to six months, but at the end of it police might not have to keep arresting the same homeless people over and over again.

Portland police are under a federal court order to improve their treatment of the mentally ill, and there’s a considerable overlap between that group and the homeless population. But if we want police to do the job better, we need to give them better tools.

The one thing we’ve learned about homelessness is that we can’t just say it’s the cops’ problem.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 9/24/15.

29 Sep

Eleven years later, Brandon Mayfield’s life is surprisingly normal — but different

These days, Brandon Mayfield’s days are pretty quiet.

“My life is pretty mundane, in a good way,” he says, “I do think that things are sort of normal, although I didn’t think they would get that way.”

Eleven years ago, after all, the Beaverton attorney was a national story, arrested for involvement in the massive Madrid train bombings after the FBI trumpeted a “100 percent match” between his fingerprint and one found on a plastic bag of detonators near the scene. Mayfield was arrested and held in downtown Portland for two weeks, until the Spanish police, who had always questioned the identification, reported the print definitively belonged to an Algerian living in Spain. Mayfield was released, charges were dropped, and eventually he received a $2 million settlement from the U.S. government.

Now, Mayfield and his daughter Sharia, a Georgetown University law student who also works in Sen. Ron Wyden’s office, have published “Improbable Cause: The War on Terror’s Assault on the Bill of Rights” (Divertir), an account of those two weeks and what they say about American surveillance policy. “Fear,” they write, “has led to the very thing the Constitution was to protect us against – erosion of our liberties when we need them the most.”

The book goes into the cell with a narrow view of the Willamette, where Mayfield, who had never been to Spain, contemplated his chances of execution; a small suburban home being blockaded by local and national reporters and satellite trucks (a family member agreed to make a short public statement if the reporters would stay off the lawn); and the family’s dawning realization that the feds, with new Patriot Act powers, had been in their home and office, photographing and then seizing materials and tapping phones.

“Improbable Cause” revisits why the feds went all in on a single fingerprint link later shown to have been dubious from the beginning: Their quick check showed Mayfield to be a Muslim, to have advertised his law practice in a Muslim Yellow Pages, to have represented someone involved in a different terror case in a child custody issue. “One of the examiners candidly admitted,” said the report of the Department of Justice’s inspector general, “that if the person identified had been someone without these characteristics … the laboratory might have revisited the identification with more skepticism and caught the error.”

Without the Spanish police, Mayfield still figures, things might have turned out differently. Part of the book’s proceeds will go to the Innocence Project, to get innocent people out of prison. Steven Wax, Mayfield’s federal public defender, now works there.

In his current mundane, normal life, Mayfield has an enduring lesson from the experience.

“You’re targeted as a Muslim American,” he says, “and nobody wants to admit that.”

Mayfield was speaking on the day when a New Hampshire questioner told Donald Trump, “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims,” and after noting that the president was one, asked, “When can we get rid of them?” Trump, who may or may not have heard the entire question, said a lot of people were asking that. The same weekend, candidate Ben Carson said that no Muslim should be president.

“The difference between Trump and some of the others,” said Mayfield, “is at least he admits it.”

Attitudes toward Islam, he thinks, are the great exception in a country increasingly tolerant on LGBT issues, and widely apologetic for its treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Mayfield declares in the book, somewhat overheatedly, that America “has now surpassed even the fantastical oppressive dystopias of Kafka and Orwell.” Yet at a time when he had the resources to live anywhere, he never really considered moving. “I’m as American as you can get,” he says firmly, noting that America is still probably a better place to be Muslim than Europe, while “The global Muslim community is in a state of disrepair.”

In general, he admits, “This is a pretty good place to be. It’s just that my idealism is dissipated.”

As the subject of maybe the highest-profile fingerprint foul-up ever, he gets invited to speak to forensic organizations, including three months ago at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Washington. At such events, he’s treated like a celebrity, which he thinks is strange.

When he’s introduced to people these days, his name may be recognized.

“Usually they say, ‘I’m personally sorry.’ I hear that a lot. It’s odd that they say it; they didn’t do it.
“But it’s a sign of what’s right in this country

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 9/23/15.

21 Sep

Latest USDA Oregon hunger numbers going in wrong direction

It turns out that while Portland was becoming the coolest city for food, not everybody was eating.

And while we’ve been advancing course by course, some of our tables were heading in the wrong direction.

The eagerly awaited annual U.S. Department of Agriculture hunger survey reports – the malnutrition version of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue – came out this month. And just as in the college football rankings, Oregon is not where it should be.

At a time when Oregon was supposed to be gaining in its battle with hunger, the feds reported that their surveys from 2012 to 2014 found that Oregon’s food insecurity got worse at the third fastest rate in the country. From their survey, the three-year average of Oregonians reporting food insecurity – essentially, not always knowing where your next meal is coming from – rose from 13.6 percent to 16.1 percent, an increase of 2.5 percent – more than any state except Louisiana and Mississippi.

On the subject of hunger, that’s not company you want to be in.

And just when we thought we were doing well. It’s been years since we ranked as the hungriest state in the country, and our economy has been advancing.

“It’s upsetting but not shocking,” commented Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a hunger advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

“The economy is advancing in very uneven way. The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is strong, but wages aren’t going up. And inequality in Oregon is among the worst of the states.”

That could explain how we were prominent in both the Department of Agriculture’s food insecurity survey, and Bon Appetit magazine.

People who watch Oregon’s hunger numbers, and try to do something about them, have some other theories.
Oregon’s considerable progress against hunger, especially over the last decade, had a lot to do with active and successful outreach for the food stamp program, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Oregon has been among the most successful states in getting people who qualified for the federal program signed up for it. When the program was bolstered by the economic stimulus program in 2009, Oregon benefited.

And when the additional benefits were cut back in November 2013, Oregon took a disproportionate hit.

“That’s the best hypothesis we’ve got,” suggested Matt Newell-Ching, public affairs director of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.

There is, he notes, another problem particular to Oregon, and particularly the metropolitan area: Especially high housing costs, and rents rising a lot faster than wages. When you’re spending an ever-growing part of your income to keep a roof over your head, something has to get squeezed. That could be groceries.

Jeff Kleen, public policy advocate at the Oregon Food Bank, looks at the numbers a bit more hopefully. He wonders if the 2012-2014 results were particularly shaped by the numbers from 2012, when demand was still rising at the food bank, which has seen some improvement in the situation in the time soon.

Comparing us to where we were in 2008, of course, is another question.

“The type of jobs that were lost are different from the type of jobs that have returned,” points out Kleen. “People need more pay, in the form of wages they can live on.”

The numbers that came out this month broke down the overall hunger numbers by state, but not the other surveys. That might be giving us a break.

Among children under 18, the Department of Agriculture calculated 15.3 million living in households with food insecurity, with more than 21 percent of American children living in poverty. Considering that Oregon’s poverty and hunger numbers have generally been worse than the national average, and our child and poverty numbers consistently worse than average, maybe it’s a break for us that this time we didn’t get the details.

Nobody would say that we haven’t made progress on hunger since the depths of the Great Recession, or since our state statistical low points around the turn of the century. We made a few more gains in this year’s legislative session, with a couple of bills to strengthen school lunch and breakfast, signed with some ceremony by the governor last week.
What the new federal numbers remind us is that it’s a permanent battle – but a battle that can be won.

“Solving hunger is not curing cancer. Curing cancer is really hard,” points out Matt Newell-Ching. “We have experience making significant advances against hunger.”

We just have to keep making them.

Because the coolest food place is one where everybody eats.

NOTE: This column appearedin The Sunday Oregonian, 9/20/15.

20 Sep

We need a Portland that people can afford to live in

Lately, the only thing that’s shot up faster than Portland’s reputation for cool has been its rents. In every part of the city, housing costs are soaring, until people end up on the city’s far fringes – or its streets.

Portland has a major housing shortage, especially in rental housing. We’ve seen how this works out in other West Coast cities – San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle – where the people needed to make the city work can’t afford to live there. That means teachers, policemen, firemen – let alone waiters, health care workers and retirees. The city and the state need to help with this.

Already, both governments have begun work on the problem. After they’ve spent hundreds of millions creating places for people to work, it’s worth spending some money on places for people to live.

That’s why major projects such as South Waterfront are planned to include affordable housing, as well as market-rate housing. That part has come around too slowly, and we need to pick up the pace.

The market by itself won’t supply those spaces. Using the attractions of the market to piggyback affordable housing onto new projects can work.

We need to let people who aren’t rich live in the city.

Land-use planning shouldn’t produce the Hunger Games.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 9/19/15.

18 Sep

New bridge and light rail line mark Portland cool, not Portland creep

Some cities celebrate sports championships, or the arrival of a large new employer, or a warmly admired political leader getting acquitted.

Portland rejoices over mass transit.

As cause for jubilation, it’s right up there with zoning.

So Saturday, thousands of locals brought their bicycles, babies and tattoos to ride the new light rail Orange line across the new Tilikum Crossing. They stood, mostly, in jammed (but engagingly air-conditioned) MAX cars, looking out at street performers, food vendors, parking lots full of information booths and cheerful bridge pedestrians waving back. Portland had a clear first impression of Tillikum Crossing:

A bridge too fun.

Two high school girls took a bus from Troutdale to Gresham, rode the Blue line downtown, switched to the Orange line and got off at the bridge, because, why not? When the trains stopped at several stations, live music blasted through the opened doors. Packed tightly together in a way to bring joy to a TriMet accountant, riders – including those made up as zombies – were bubblingly cheerful, maneuvering around bicycles hanging from hooks and Fiat-sized baby carriages, marveling at a sidewalk Darth Vader on a unicycle playing bagpipes.

Off the trains, an unending stretch of white-tented volunteers, pop-up markets and local businesses reached out to the rails. Extending from downtown Portland to downtown Milwaukie was a five-mile-long street fair.

Different people, of course, have different ideas of what there is to celebrate. This was the line, after all, that at virtually the last minute, a new three-vote majority on the Clackamas County commission did everything but lie down on the tracks to try to stop, in fear of “Portland Creep.” Saturday afternoon indeed offered various signs of how the line might change the territory it was covering, notably bilingual signs imploring “Look Both Ways,” omens of Orange line neighbors learning what pedestrians elsewhere have learned: A light rail train comes up on you quietly, and very hard.

There were other signs at the far end, such as an enterprising vendor selling $15 “Make Milwaukie Weird” T-shirts.
Portland creep.

So to speak.

But the new Orange line, and the new bridge it travels over, are also a direct expression of the newly emerging Portland, the city described in The New York Times Sunday – the day after the transit holiday – as “a bastion of good living, leisure and happy inebriation … one of our national capitals of cool.”
Because Cleveland doesn’t have a Darth Vader on a unicycle.

Portland has something else beside the street theatre and the “happy inebriation” (a phrase that should immediately appear on the city’s official stationery): It has major and expanding development along its growing light rail and streetcar lines, as people decide they want to live near the rails and the revelry. Reportedly, property values are already increasing along the system’s new tracks in southeast Portland and Clackamas. Benefits of proximity are likely to be widespread, extending from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry to the venerable strip club the Acropolis, right next door to a new station and likely at any moment to offer a transit rider discount.

Portland is also very fond of bridges, especially bridges that you can ride bicycles over. We like – we pay for the rights – to throw different colored lights on the Hawthorne Bridge; we commute across bridges in a steady pedestrian and two-wheeled stream (often stopping to marvel); and we’re eager to celebrate the new Sellwood Bridge, if it’s ever finished.

With the ripening of the Orange line, joining the Blue, Red, Yellow and Green lines, Portland is approaching a rail rainbow, with a track and trolley map looking hearteningly complicated, interconnecting the metropolitan area.
Except in one direction.

Riding over the new line and the bridge we have, you could also think of the bridge and line we’re not going to have. The line across to Vancouver, assumed to ultimately be part of the system since the first tracks were laid 30 years ago, may now have passed from possibility, overloaded by an impossibly convoluted process on one side and fears of Portland creep on the other. Now, the feds may have gotten off the paying-for-light-rail train for good.

Eventually, of course, the current bridge, although a valued memento of Woodrow Wilson, may just fall down, or the I-5 traffic across the river might just slow slightly from congested to motionless. But it seems less likely that we’ll have a new Purple line over a new bridge to Vancouver.

A shame, because that opening would be a real party.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 9/16/15.

14 Sep

Required oversight of on-line virtual school may be no more than virtual

They ran perpetually throughout the summer, TV ads for schools along with other hot-weather spots for fast food and beach wear. Engaging young professionals, standing next to engaging middle-school versions of themselves, explain how their studies at Oregon Connections Academy readied them for success in life.

The spots are part of a promotional build-up that has helped explode the enrollment of the on-line for-profit school past 4,000, making it a respectable-size Oregon school district – virtually. The Legislature has increased the permissible number of on-line students, and ORCA and other virtual schools are approaching that level.

But if Oregon Connections is expanding and remodeling its virtual address, it has dramatically changed its – you should excuse the expression – physical address, and notably changed its residential expenses.

Oregon law requires on-line schools, like other charters, to be sponsored by a school district, which stores the on-line school’s records – apparently the Legislature wasn’t comfortable just having them in the cloud – and, at least in theory, provides some oversight. For its decade of existence, Oregon Connections has had its mailing address – as opposed to its emailing address – at Linn County’s Scio district”, with a student body of 650, considerably smaller than the on-line enrollment it oversaw.

In exchange, ORCA, collecting the per-student Oregon state payment, passed 10 percent per K-8 student and 5 percent per high school student on to Scio, which split the money with the student’s home district.

But Oregon Connections has now found a better deal. For this year, it has switched its sponsorship to the yet-smaller Santiam Canyon school district in Mill City, 30 miles east of Salem, with a 2012-2013 enrollment of 528. Explained now-departed ORCA School Board Chairman Jeff Kropf, a founder of the online academy and a former state senator, “The ORCA board is truly excited to be able to offer new educational opportunities for our students by establishing a new partnership with the Santiam Canyon School District.”

Whatever the new educational opportunities, there is one clear attraction to the new sponsor: According to the ORCA-Santiam Canyon contract on file with the Oregon Department of Education, Oregon Connections Academy now keeps 99 percent of the state’s per-student payment. The contract does says that ORCA will pay Santiam Canyon a percentage-based management fee, but the contract doesn’t specify what the percentage will be.

“We felt we’d plateaued, so we were looking for a different deal,” said Wes Becksted, current chairman of the ORCA board, in a recent interview. “I think Mill City came up with a better deal financially, but it’s not that lopsided.” The difference is partly covered, he said, by Mill City providing some additional services.

Another appeal is that Todd Miller, new superintendent of Santiam Canyon, is the former executive director of Oregon Connections Academy.

To Gary Tempel, superintendent of Scio, ORCA’s decision process was simpler. “They wanted more money,” says Tempel. “Their minimums were set by the state, but not their maximums.”

And all those TV ads cost money.

In one way, you could say that Scio just got outbid, or rather underbid, in a process Tempel compares to the old show “Name That Tune,” where contestants bid lower and lower on how many notes they would need to identify a song. But Tempel also claims a growing unease, as Oregon Connections grew from a few hundred students to its current level of 4,000, about how much oversight a district his size could actually provide, and what liability it might have.

“If it was going to be me in front of the judge at the end of the day, answering the summons,” he says, “we wanted to be in charge of that.”

Besides finances, Tempel cites differences with Oregon Connections on special education, with not all of its special ed teachers Oregon-certified, and ORCA’s interest in opening offices in other cities. The new ORCA-Santiam County contract declares a goal of all teachers being Oregon-certified, but doesn’t guarantee it.

The size, and presumably the capacities, of sponsoring districts doesn’t seem to be a general concern; both Becksted and Tempel cited a trend of on-line schools switching to smaller sponsoring districts.

All this is, of course, entirely legal; any district of any size has sponsoring powers. Tempel now says, “Small districts don’t have the capacity to supervise charter schools,” but it’s not clear where that question fits into the state’s education policy.

This Friday, Oregon Connections Academy has an on-line open house for potential students and families.

For anyone who wants to drop by Mill City, it’s a little more remote – and a little smaller – than Scio.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 9/13/15.