Reform advocates in Oregon quietly filed a proposed initiative last month to decriminalize low-level possession of all drugs that could appear before voters on the state’s 2020 ballot.
The measure, titled the “Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act,” places an emphasis on the need to treat drug addiction as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter. Possession of small amounts of illegal substances, including heroin and cocaine, would be considered a class E violation, punishable by a maximum $100 fine and no jail time.
There would be an option to avoid the fine by completing a health assessment through an addiction recovery center. That process would involve a substance use disorder screening from a licensed health professional.
Manufacturing and distributing controlled substances would still cary heavy penalties, including felony charges.
Additionally, the initiative would use tax revenue from legal marijuana sales to establish grant programs designed to significantly expand access to addiction treatment services throughout the state.
Petitioners said that the purpose of their measure is to “make health assessment, treatment and recovery services for drug addiction available to all those who need and want access to those services and to adopt a health approach to drug addiction by removing criminal penalties for low-level drug possession.”
Advocates are still in the early phases of determining whether they will be able to mount a well-funded effort to qualify the measure for next year’s ballot.
“It’s too early to know if this initiative petition will go forward—Oregon has a long process—but I hope it does, because we desperately need it,” Anthony Johnson, a chief petitioner on the campaign, told Marijuana Moment in an email. “Oregon ranks 50th in the country in access to drug addiction treatment, and I’m hopeful about the prospect of redirecting a portion of cannabis tax revenue so that everyone struggling with addiction can have access to the treatment services they need.”
Johnson also served as chief petitioner for Oregon’s successful 2014 marijuana legalization effort.
Another petitioner listed on the new drug decriminalization measure is Janie Gullickson, executive director of the Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon.
Oversight of the drug treatment grant program funded by the initiative would be the responsibility of a council that would be established by the Oregon Health Authority. The body would be tasked with expanding access to health services by providing funding to organizations that are “evidence-informed, trauma-informed, culturally responsive, patient-centered, and non-judgmental.”
An example of an eligible health provider would be one that offers harm reduction interventions, including “overdose prevention education, access to naloxone hydrochloride and sterile syringes, and stimulant-specific drug education and outreach.”
Talk of a prospective all-drug decriminalization proposal being introduced in Oregon led the founders of a separate reform group, Oregon Psilocybin Society (OPS), to drop similar provisions from their proposed 2020 measure to legalize psychedelic mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.
OPS said that part of the reason it omitted decriminalization language from a revised draft of their measure was because it heard that the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) planned to introduce a separate initiative that would remove the threat of jail time for any kind of low-level drug possession charge.
DPA confirmed to Marijuana Moment that it is considering getting involved in multiple potential state-level decriminalization efforts but said it hasn’t yet decided whether to support a full-scale effort to qualify the Oregon proposal for the ballot.
“We’ve been looking at a number of states, including Oregon, that could benefit from moving towards a health-centered approach to drugs and away from criminalization,” Matt Sutton, DPA’s director of media relations, said in an email. “At this point in time, we have connected with various groups on the ground and are exploring all of our options.”
“It is much too soon to determine whether or not we will move forward with this measure, however, the process to get something on the ballot in Oregon can be lengthy, and we wanted to make sure the door was still open for the potential measure to proceed,” he said.
Regardless of what DPA chooses to do in the state, the change to OPS’s original psilocybin measure has already caused conflict among other reform organizations who insist that therapeutic legalization should be coupled with decriminalization, regardless of what outside groups are pursuing.
Oregon’s attorney general issued a certified ballot title for the psychedelic mushroom initiative on Friday, and now petitioners are cleared to collect the required 112,020 valid signatures from voters by July 2, 2020 in order to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
If the state Elections Division determines this month that petitioners on the drug decriminalization measure submitted at least 1,000 valid initial signatures, the attorney general would then have five business days to prepare a draft ballot title.
Read the general resolution of the drug decriminalization initiative below:
DRUG ADDICTION TREATMENT AND RECOVERY ACT
Whereas, Oregonians need adequate access to drug addiction treatment. Oregon ranks nearly last out of the 50 states in access to treatment, and the waiting lists to get treatment are too long. Every day, one or two Oregonians die because of drug overdoses. Drug treatment and recovery ought to be available to any Oregon resident who requests it.
Whereas, Oregonians suffering from substance use disorder also need adequate access to recovery services, peer support and stable housing. One in every 11 Oregonians is addicted to drugs. Drug addiction exacerbates many of our state’s most pressing problems, such as homelessness and poverty.
Whereas, Oregon needs to shift its focus to addressing drugs through a humane, cost-effective, health approach. People suffering from addiction are more effectively treated with health care services than with criminal punishments. A health care approach includes a health assessment to figure out the needs of people who are suffering from addiction, and it includes connecting them to the services they need.
Whereas, Oregon still treats addiction as a criminal problem. Law enforcement should spend more time on community safety, but Oregon law enforcement officers in 2017 arrested more than 8,000 people in cases where simple drug possession was the most serious offense. In many instances, the same people were arrested for drug possession, again and again, because they are unable to get treatment.
Whereas, punishing people who are suffering from addiction ruins lives. Criminalizing drugs saddles people with criminal records. Those records prevent them from getting housing, going to school, getting loans, getting professional licenses, getting jobs and keeping jobs. Criminalizing drugs disproportionately harms poor people and people of color.
Whereas, punishing people who are suffering from addiction is expensive. It costs an average of $15,000 per case where a misdemeanor drug conviction is the most serious offense. That is more than the typical cost to provide treatment.
Whereas, marijuana tax revenue has grown significantly. Oregon now receives more than $100 million in marijuana tax revenue a year. The amount of marijuana revenue is expected to grow by more than $20 million per year.
The People of Oregon therefore propose this Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act of 2020 to expand access to drug treatment and recovery services and pay for it with marijuana tax revenue.
Congressional Bill Requires Legal Marijuana States To Consider Impaired Driving Policies
Democratic leadership in a House committee introduced a bill on Wednesday that includes a provision requiring legal marijuana states—and only those states—to consider ways to promote education about the dangers of cannabis-impaired driving while curbing such behavior.
The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee filed the legislation, which is also being cosponsored by several chairs of subcommittees under the panel. While the main thrust of the INVEST in America Act is aimed at promoting the completion of various long-term infrastructure projects, it also features language concerning cannabis policy.
Under the bill, a section of current law requiring that states establish highway safety programs would be amended to add a section stipulating that states “which have legalized medicinal or recreational marijuana shall consider programs in addition to the programs…to educate drivers on the risks associated with marijuana-impaired driving and to reduce injuries and deaths resulting from individuals driving motor vehicles while impaired by marijuana.”
Reform advocates support measures to reduce impaired driving, but there may be some who take issue with the provision given the implication that legalizing marijuana increases the risk of people driving while impaired. Research isn’t settled on that subject.
A congressional research body said in a report last year that concerns expressed by lawmakers that cannabis legalization will make the roads more dangerous might not be totally founded. In fact, the experts tasked by the House and Senate with looking into the issue found that evidence about cannabis’s ability to impair driving is currently inconclusive.
Beside that contention, the legislation seems to neglect to take into account that cannabis-impaired driving isn’t exclusive to legal states and that public education could be beneficial across all states regardless of their individual marijuana policies.
“It is somewhat absurd to draw a differentiation between states when it comes to the current legal status, because it is entirely feasible that every state will be legalized by the end of this decade,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “And regardless, I have heard rumors that some Texans consume cannabis despite its prohibited status.”
Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said in a press release that the overall bill “is our opportunity to replace the outdated systems of the past with smarter, safer, more resilient infrastructure that fits the economy of the future, creates millions of jobs, supports American manufacturing, and restores U.S. competitiveness.”
Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Chairwoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Chairman Dan Lipinski (D-IL) are also sponsoring the legislation, which is scheduled for a full committee vote on June 17.
U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Touts Legal Marijuana’s Economic Potential At Revenue Meeting
The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) on Tuesday again stressed the need to legalize marijuana in order to generate tax revenue for the territory’s fiscal recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D), who unveiled a revised legalization bill last month and pushed legislators to promptly take it up, discussed the projected economic impact of the policy change at a revenue conference.
During the virtual meeting, he pulled up a spreadsheet that breaks down estimates for annual cannabis sales from residents and tourists, as well as potential revenue from taxes and fees.
Cruise passengers and non-resident hotel guests will make approximately $43 million in annual marijuana purchases, the estimate from an independent firm states. Residents, meanwhile, are projected to spend about $38 million on cannabis each year.
“This doesn’t include what we would call the second and third turns in the economy in term of products being bought like lamps and fertilizer, jobs being created, dispensary jobs. None of that,” the governor said.
Watch the governor discuss marijuana legalization’s economic impact, starting around 3:10:35 into the video below:
In terms of revenue, the territory can expect to take in about $11 million annually from tourists, who will be taxed at 25 percent for marijuana products. Residents, who will be taxed at a much lower rate, will contribute about $3 million in taxes. All told, the territory is estimated to generate nearly $18 million in cannabis sales tax revenue per year.
Additionally, the analysis projects that USVI will receive $12.1 million from licensing fees and a cultivation tax. Point of sale permits for cruises and hotels will bring in another $3.6 million.
It all adds up to “a $33 million deposit in our treasury due to cannabis sales,” Bryan said, characterizing the projections as conservative estimates.
The governor said he wanted to highlight these figures to conference attendees “to show you quickly what this could mean to the territory should we have this enacted and we go to work.”
“Of course, it’s going to take some work to get this done,” he said. “But we need to get this measure done as quickly as possible in order to start impacting our economy in a very positive way.”
Bryan has previously said that beyond helping to offset some of the financial damage that COVID-19 outbreak has created, establishing a legal cannabis market would provide funding for the territory’s retirement system for government employees.
After he first proposed the policy change and directed the legislature to take up the issue in a special session late last year, several legislators voiced opposition to specifics of the proposal.
Some questioned the notion that tax revenue from cannabis sales could make up for the significant deficits running within the retirement program, while others argued that the legislation as drafted did not adequately address social equity. Another issue that arose concerned licensing, with lawmakers worried that small businesses on the island would be left out.
The governor’s revised marijuana legalization bill, which has been transmitted to the Senate for action, would ban home cultivation for recreational consumers, allow cultivation for medical cannabis patients, increase the number of members of the government’s Cannabis Advisory Board and limit non-residents to purchasing up to seven grams of flower per day while residents could buy up to an ounce.
There would be no tax on cannabis sales for medical patients, a 7.5 percent tax for residents and a 25 percent tax for non-residents.
In order to own a marijuana business, an individual must have been a resident of USVI for at least 10 years. For micro-cultivator business, the threshold is five years of residency.
A special “cannabis fund” would be established under the proposed legislation, with 20 percent of marijuana tax revenue being allocated to fund the Office of Cannabis Regulations, a cannabis testing program, job training, substance misuse treatment and grant programs for business incubation and micro-lending.
The bill also provides for automatic expungements for prior marijuana possession convictions, encourages research into the benefits of cannabis and recognizes the rights of individuals who wish to use or grow the plant for religious purposes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved USVI’s hemp plan last month.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Virginia Governor Says Marijuana Decriminalization Partly Addresses Racial Inequity Inspiring Mass Protests
The governor of Virginia said on Tuesday that the passage of marijuana decriminalization legislation this year represents an example of how his state has addressed racial inequities that are inspiring mass protests over recent police killings of black Americans.
In a speech, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said that while he cannot personally attest to the pain that the black community is grappling with, there are steps lawmakers can take to reform policies that disproportionately harm minorities. That includes removing the threat of jail time for cannabis possession—an offense more likely to be enforced against black people despite comparable rates of use among white people.
“Through 400 years of American history—starting with the enslavement of Africans, through Jim Crow, massive resistance and now mass incarceration—black oppression has always existed in this country, just in different forms,” he said. “I cannot know how it feels to be an African American person right now or what you are going through. I cannot know the depth of your pain. But what I can do is stand with you and I can support you, and together we’re going to turn this pain into action.”
That action has meant “reforming criminal justice,” he said. “It meant decriminalizing marijuana.”
The governor, who faced severe scrutiny last year after he admitted he was in a yearbook photo showing people wearing blackface and dressed as KKK members, also cited expanding access to Medicaid and increasing the threshold for felony larceny as examples of ways the state has addressed racial inequality during his administration.
Northam signed a marijuana decriminalization bill last month and it goes into effect on July 1. Under the legislation, possessing up to one ounce of cannabis will be punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time and no criminal record. Current Virginia law makes simple possession punishable by a maximum $500 fine, up to 30 days in jail and a criminal record.
Later in the Tuesday press conference, Shirley Ginwright, a member of the Virginia African American Advisory Board that Northam established, thanked him specifically for approving the cannabis decriminalization bill.
“So many of our students and our young black men and women were getting caught up in the criminal justice system because of marijuana, something that wasn’t killing them,” she said.
The governor isn’t alone in connecting the outrage over police killings of black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to cannabis prohibition enforcement. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also recently said racial disparities in marijuana criminalization is an example of a systemic injustice that underlies the frustration of minority communities.
Last week, 12 House members introduced a resolution condemning police brutality and specifically noting the racial injustices of the war on drugs.
The measure came one week after 44 members of the House sent a letter to the Justice Department, calling for an independent investigation into a fatal police shooting of Taylor in a botched drug raid.
Berner, a rapper who owns a marijuana dispensary that was looted in Los Angeles over the weekend, also seemed to echo Booker’s sentiment, stating that the damage to his shop to looting pales in comparison to the underlying racial injustices that prompted the protests.