Illustration by Shiela Laufer

LAST SEPTEMBER, Phoebe Gresser was walking through Sellwood when she realized a car was creeping behind her.

Her route, along SE Tacoma, cut through a relatively busy part of the neighborhood, but it was 1:30 am, and Gresser was 20 years old and alone. It felt like a wasteland.

She tried to shake the car, turning around and walking the other way. When the sedan also turned, Gresser began to run.

The unmarked car sped past and pulled into a parking lot, cutting her off. Two men hopped out and hurried toward her. Against every instinct, Gresser says she froze, incapacitated by fear.

"I thought my luck had run out," she said recently. "I know that sounds dramatic."

The first thing her assailants said to her: "OLCC."

"The next thing one of them says, which is not okay, is 'Aren't you glad it's just us and not someone else?'"

After they'd frightened the Lewis and Clark College junior into thinking she'd be raped or kidnapped, the two Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) investigators accused Gresser of being drunk and wrote her a ticket for being a minor in possession of alcohol. They also warned her she was in violation of the law simply for running from them.

"If it [had been] a cop and they would have turned their lights on," she says, "I would have stopped."

Gresser says the OLCC crossed the line that night, and college officials and state lawmakers who've heard her story agree. Meanwhile, Lewis and Clark students say the incident is representative of the agency's heavy-handed tactics. They're railing against the enforcement at a time the OLCC is asking for sweeping new power over Oregon marijuana laws.

It seems to be working.

"If I were the liquor control commission chair and there were two clowns running around in an unmarked car hauling down on lone females near a college campus, those guys would be counting paper clips while we had an investigation on their fitness to do the job," says State Senator Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day), the senate's top Republican and vice chair of a joint committee tasked with crafting Oregon's pot laws. "You do not do a Starsky and Hutch in the middle of a darkened street."

Ferrioli and his colleagues on the weed committee heard Gresser's story from Representative Ann Lininger (D-Lake Oswego), and the timing couldn't have been more perfect. Lininger received a visit from Gresser, who's a member of Lewis and Clark's student government, on April 1, the same day lawmakers were considering an OLCC request for broad authority to enforce the state's new recreational marijuana laws, just as it does alcohol.

"The stories they relayed were actually very troubling," Lininger said at the meeting. "Based on the conversation I had earlier today I'm not looking to replicate what my constituents' experience is for alcohol."

Jesse Sweet, an OLCC staffer testifying before the committee said the agency is "working at improving our relationships with constituents," but declined to comment on the story.

Lawmakers piled on, voicing support for granting the OLCC limited authority to enforce laws on "licensed premises," but not for wider-ranging patrols.

"What we don't want is them to be knocking on someone's door and saying, 'We wanna see your home grow,'" said Senator Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene).

The effect Lewis and Clark students will have on the agency's liquor enforcement is less certain.

The OLCC downplays its enforcement efforts when it comes to college campuses. In a recent memo asking for expanded power, the agency acknowledged it has a "broad grant of authority" to enforce liquor laws. "In practice," the agency wrote, "the liquor inspectors focus their enforcement efforts on licensed premises." That's not the case near many Oregon colleges and universities, where the agency's officers issue tickets at house parties and patrol streets for minors to stop.

Asked about those tactics, OLCC spokesperson Christie Scott said the agency has developed partnerships with colleges all over the state, and that campuses value the help. She forwarded a 2013 letter from the head of Lewis and Clark's campus safety department, commending the agency's efforts.

"It is unfortunate that this student had the experience that you describe," Scott said, suggesting Gresser file a complaint with the agency. "OLCC staff have a great relationship with Lewis and Clark Campus Safety and try very hard to work cooperatively with students."

Gresser also forwarded a document: The results of an online survey conducted by Lewis and Clark's student government, which asked students about interactions with OLCC officers. The responses, which were anonymous, came back universally negative.

"I was grabbed by the chin by an officer and addressed as 'hun,'" said one characteristic response. "I felt uncomfortable with the situation and I felt patronized."

"As an RA [resident assistant], I can state that I feel their presence has had a detrimental effect on my ability to live and work in this community," said another. "Their policing creates an atmosphere of distrust and fueled acrimonious feeling toward authority figures."

It's not just students voicing concern. The college's lawyer says Lewis and Clark firmly believes the OLCC should be able to crack down on underage drinking, but he was concerned by Gresser's story.

"If that kind of stuff is happening it's a big abridgment of rights," says General Counsel David Ellis. "If my daughter was being followed by a car walking down the street at night, I'd tell her to get the hell out of there."

For her part, Gresser admits to drinking on the night of her encounter with the OLCC, but says it was only a couple of beers. Investigators, meanwhile, wrote in an incident report she was slurring and pugnacious, smelling heavily of alcohol, which she denies.

Whatever the case, Gresser says she agrees with the OLCC's ability to write her a ticket as a minor who'd broken the law. She and her student government colleagues just think it needs to abide by more guidelines when doing so.

"The end game is to change the law," says Nick LeSage, a Lewis and Clark sophomore and student government member. "We want statutory language that they must issue a field sobriety test, and they must be wearing uniforms and be driving marked cars."

They've asked Lininger to look into crafting a bill that requires as much. The lawmaker's interested, and has scheduled a meeting with the OLCC to address the students' concerns.

"I take it seriously," Lininger says. "Nobody wants young people getting scared and intimidated by authority."