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PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - A vote for Oregon's top law enforcement post on Tuesday has turned into a referendum on pot, with one candidate wanting to make enforcing medical marijuana rules a low priority and another who calls the state's system a "train wreck."
The Democratic primary for state attorney general pits former Attorney Dwight Holton, who once cracked down on pot, against retired judge Ellen Rosenblum. Republicans have not fielded a candidate, so the primary victor will become the presumptive winner in the general election.
"As attorney general, I will make marijuana enforcement a low priority, and protect the rights of medical marijuana patients," Rosenblum, who has a strong lead in polls, said on her website.
By contrast, Holton sent a letter to owners, operators and landlords of Oregon medical pot shops last year as U.S. Attorney, warning they faced prosecution for involvement in the sale of cannabis. He has criticized the state's pot system.
"The law as it is currently running, I believe, is a train wreck because it's putting marijuana in the hands of people, in the hands of kids, who are not using it for pain management purposes," Holton said at a debate in March.
The outcome of the primary could have implications beyond largely Democratic Oregon, providing one of the first chances to gauge the public response to a federal government crackdown on marijuana in states that allow it for medical purposes.
"A victory for Rosenblum could have symbolic power which would reach beyond the state into the national debate," said University of Oregon political science professor Joe Lowndes.
The results of Oregon's mail-only ballot are expected to be announced Tuesday evening.
The contest also comes as two groups in Oregon are racing to collect enough signatures for two separate ballot initiatives seeking to legalize marijuana for recreational use in the state.
If their efforts are successful, Oregon voters will join those in Colorado and Washington state who will decide on the matter in November. Those states are among 16 and the District of Columbia that already allow medical marijuana, though cannabis remains an illegal narcotic under federal law.
A Survey USA poll released last week showed Rosenblum in the lead with the support of 52 percent of likely Democratic voters, versus 27 percent for Holton. But 21 percent remained undecided. The survey of 432 people had a margin of error of 4.8 percent.
The Rosenblum campaign has drawn financial support from marijuana legalization supporters. She has raised at least $185,000 from backers of medical marijuana out of her total contributions of roughly $650,000 from all sources.
Among the largest contributions from medical marijuana supporters is $80,000 from Drug Policy Action, an affiliate of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, campaign records show.
Holton's total contributions stand at $794,000, with some of the largest coming from unions. He has vowed to respect and enforce the state's medical marijuana law if elected. Other priorities include protecting consumers, the environment and civil rights.
With Rosenblum pledging a similar list of priorities if elected, the two candidates' views on medical pot have emerged as a key issue that divides them.
While medical marijuana is legal in Oregon, the sale for profit of cannabis to any of the state's 55,000 registered cannabis patients is considered illegal, although growers can be reimbursed for supplies and utilities.
Even so, some medical marijuana "cafes" have sprung up in the state, drawing the ire of groups opposed to drug use.
Jill Harris, managing director of strategic initiatives for Drug Policy Action, said a Holton loss would be noticed by other U.S. attorneys interested in elected office.
"(They) might look at this and say, 'People who support medical marijuana actually care about this and they actually have the resources to hurt me politically if I thwart the will of the voters,'" Harris said.
Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman