Get ready to hear a whole lot more about drug policy in Oregon in the lead-up to November’s election.
Reform advocates on Saturday announced the official launch of a ballot measure campaign “designed to establish a more humane and effective approach to drugs.” If approved, the initiative would fund the expansion of access to drug treatment and—in a historic first—decriminalize low-level possession of all drugs statewide.
The measure, titled the “Drug Treatment and Recovery Act,” represents an effort to reframe drug use as a public health issue rather than a matter of criminal justice. The proposal would take money from the state’s existing marijuana tax revenue and use it to establish addiction recovery centers throughout the state. It would expand services focusing on evidence-based treatment, provide housing support for people with substance use disorders and emphasize a harm-reduction approach to overdose prevention and drug education.
While campaign is quick to emphasize that the measure “does not legalize any drugs,” it would decriminalize possession of small amounts of illegal drugs.
Chief Petitioner Janie Gullickson, Exec. Director of the Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon announces that the #MoreTreatment campaign already has more than 20 organizational endorsements including @bridges2change, @miraclesclub, @ACLU, @ACLU_OR, & @PoliceForReform. pic.twitter.com/slPAiOjLm6
— More Treatment. A Better Oregon. (@moretreatment) February 29, 2020
State laws around the manufacture and distribution of controlled substances would remain the same, with some offenses carrying felony charges. What would change is how the law would regard possession of small amounts for personal use. Instead of being charged as a misdemeanor crime, possession would be charged as a civil infraction—a class E violation, punishable by a maximum $100 fine and no jail time. The fine could be avoided by completing a health assessment through an addiction recovery center, which would include a screening by licensed health care worker.
The goal of IP 44, advocates say, is to ensure that people have access to effective drug treatment rather than try to address the problem through policing and punishment—a strategy that has shown to be ineffective over decades of the war on drugs.
Also on Saturday, the campaign announced its first 20 endorsements, including from ACLU Oregon, United Seniors of Oregon, Oregon Latino Health Coalition, Oregon State Council For Retired Citizens, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Action. Other supporting organizations represent victims of violence, rental tenants, concerned mothers and a variety of other communities.
IP 44 can save lives and help so many people who are struggling. <3 if you agree with Brent that it's time for a better approach to drug addiction. pic.twitter.com/p9vfXmRgWe
— More Treatment. A Better Oregon. (@moretreatment) February 22, 2020
A newly released campaign video makes the case for reform through the story of Janie Gullickson, the executive director of the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon and one of the chief petitioners on the proposed measure. Gullickson, who describes herself as “a person in long-term recovery,” was addicted to drugs for more than 22 years, she says in the video, before treatment and recovery taught her “a new way to live.”
“Instead of access to treatment, what we have today is actually criminalization of addiction. That ruins lives,” Gullickson said. “Addiction cost me my kids, my education and my freedom.”
Oregon ranks near last among all U.S. states in access drug addiction treatment, the campaign notes, pointing to the federal government’s own data on patients “needing but not receiving treatment at a specialty facility for substance use.” Though Gullickson was in the system—she’d been in and out of jail multiple times—she says incarceration never addressed her addiction or its underlying causes.
“I started getting in that cycle of incarceration, and in jail there wasn’t access to treatment,” she says. “There wasn’t any social worker or case manager that came in and asked, ‘What is the underlying issue? How can we help you?’ No. I just repeated that cycle over and over and over.”
After finally receiving treatment, Gullickson said, her life changed. “Treatment was the turning point, that key piece that taught me a new way to live,” she said. “Today I have a relationship with my children that had been completely severed. I was there for my parents as a daughter they could feel safe with as they went through the end of their life.”
The proposal to expand the state’s treatment services and decriminalize drugs was first filed in September, and the campaign began limited signature gathering late last year as a test of how viable the measure is. Now that advocates have decided to go ahead with the effort to qualify for the ballot, they need to collect 112,020 valid signatures from registered voters.
The IP 44 campaign is expected to release updated signature numbers next week, but according to state filings, the campaign as of Friday had collected 48,471 signatures, which still need to be validated.
A separate Oregon ballot campaign is attempting to qualify a measure that would legalize the therapeutic use of psilocybin, the primary active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms. Retail sales would not be allowed, but adults would be able to visit licensed facilities and have the drug administered under medical supervision. That campaign had filed a total of 38,805 signatures as of Friday.
One notable group hasn’t yet taken an official position on the new drug treatment and decriminalization campaign: Oregon’s teachers’ union. The Oregon Education Association last year that it “supports these policy objectives” of the decriminalization measure, but has concerns over how its treatment component would be funded. IP 44 would redirect some cannabis tax revenue away from schools, which the group called “troubling” in a comment filed with state elections officials in October.
The measure “essentially caps the marijuana tax revenue available to fund schools, by requiring the transfer of all revenues in excess of $11,250,000 ($11.25 million) quarterly into the new drug treatment fund,” the union said. That could mean as much as a two-thirds reduction in cannabis taxes going to schools.
Activists in other states, meanwhile, are working to put a host of marijuana-focused reform measures before voters this fall. State voters in South Dakota will vote on both a medical marijuana and an adult-use measure this year, and Mississippi advocates collected enough signatures to qualify an initiative to legalize medical cannabis. In New Jersey, the legislature approved a resolution late last year that will put full legalization on the ballot.
Photo courtesy of Markus Spiske.