Mannix: Lax laws make Oregon a drug magnet

Mannix: Lax laws make Oregon a drug magnet
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Prosecutors across Oregon say they state has become a magnet for drug traffickers, because of lenient laws governing those who deal big quantities of drugs.
     
Someone convicted three times in Oregon for selling 3.3 pounds of meth faces a maximum of four years in prison. The same crime carries a potential penalty of 13 years in California, 21 years in the federal system, and up to life in Texas.
     
Former Republican lawmaker Kevin Mannix is backing a ballot measure intended for November, 2008, that would send first-time dealers to prison for a minimum of 30 months.
     
"We might as well have a flashing neon sign on our border saying, 'Oregon: We are soft on hard drugs,"' Mannix says. "We invite criminal drug activity in this state by being passive."
     
But others counter that such an approach removes judicial authority, and would send many small-time dealers into expensive prisons instead of treatment centers.
     
The Mannix initiative, which also would set mandatory minimum sentences for crimes such as forgery, auto theft and burglary that often are drug-related, would boost Oregon's prison population by more than one-third and cost an estimated $128 million a year, the state Criminal Justice Commission says.
     
A group of lawmakers, prosecutors, police and crime victims are working on a more moderate approach that would increase treatment options for small-time dealers.
     
But they acknowledge Oregon's laws must toughen penalties for big-time dealers.
     
"Right now," said Steve Briggs, the state Department of Justice's criminal division chief, "I don't think drug dealers really fear the state court system."
     
Oregon's current drug laws make no distinction between the sale of 10 grams or 10 tons of dangerous drugs such as meth, cocaine and heroin, says Chris Stringer, Benton County's chief deputy district attorney.
     
Mannix, who wrote 1994's Measure 11 mandatory minimum sentencing law for violent crimes, has submitted more than enough signatures to qualify the initiative for the November 2008 ballot.
     
A group of crime policymakers met last week in Salem to draft a bill that would be tougher on big-time traffickers but not overload prisons with low-level dealers, said state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
     
The bill, which the group wants to give the Legislature in February, would "hold medium- and large-scale traffickers more accountable, with tougher sanctions," Prozanski says.
     
Kevin Neely, lobbyist for the Oregon District Attorneys Association, says his group hopes legislators will find a more affordable way to deliver meaningful sentences. If they don't, he said, many district attorneys will back Mannix's measure.

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