Max Savage LevensonJuly 2, 2020
A statewide measure to decriminalize all drugs was approved for the November ballot in Oregon. Voters will decide if the time has come to stop arresting people for what they put into their own bodies. (AdobeStock)
In the upcoming November election, Oregonians will vote on a measure that would decriminalize all drugs.
On July 1, Oregon’s Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act (IP44) officially qualified for the November ballot. The Oregon Secretary of State’s office verified 116,000 signatures in favor of the initiative—just over the minimum of 112,020.
The initiative would decriminalize the use of all drugs and provide holistic, wide-reaching services to drug users. IP44 is the first measure of its kind to reach a statewide ballot in the United States. The proposed program would be funded almost exclusively through $100 million in annual cannabis tax revenue.
“Nothing like this has ever been done before,” said Matt Sutton, media relations director at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which helped write and advocate for the initiative. “There’s been a lot of movement in terms of criminal justice reform and people are starting to realize that criminalizing drugs isn’t doing anything. It’s just harming them more.”
A state desperate for drug treatment
Despite legalizing adult-use cannabis in 2014, Oregon ranks nearly last when it comes to drug treatment. According to the text of the initiative itself, one out of every eleven Oregonians is struggling with a substance use disorder, and an estimated one to two Oregonians suffer a fatal overdose every day.
According to the National Institute for Drug Abuse, roughly 67,300 Americans died from a drug overdose in 2018.
Furthermore, Oregon law enforcement has continued to arrest thousands of residents for drug possession every year, with disproportionate harm falling upon Black and indigenous Oregonians. In 2019, for instance, 8,903 Oregonians were arrested in cases where drug possession was the most serious offense.
As is the case across the country, those non-violent drug charges can impact an individual’s access to housing, employment, immigration status, child custody and more.
Rising overdose rates in pandemic
The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated overdose rates, as individuals encounter greater access challenges to in-person treatment and maintaining mental health in general. Sutton explained that some treatment centers are seeing their waiting lists triple as they are forced to limit capacity.
Across the country, “we are seeing overdoses going up 50%, 100%, sometimes even more,” DPA’s Sutton told Leafly. “A lot of people died waiting for treatment.”
Jails and prisons are virus incubators
Jails and prisons have become hot spots for COVID-19 infection, which means the criminalization of drugs is leading to unnecessary deaths every day.
“Oregon police need to stop making these kinds of arrests, putting our communities in danger, and ruining lives by giving people criminal records,” said Kayse Jama, executive director of Unite Oregon. “The need for this measure is more urgent right now than ever before, because jails and prisons have turned into contagion hotspots during the pandemic.”
Housing as a recovery tool
The campaign for IP44 came together through a coalition of local organizations including Unite Oregon and the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon, whose executive director, Janie Gullickson, is the chief petitioner for the initiative.
As such, the initiative reflects the needs of Oregonians in particular.
Homelessness, for instance, is a huge issue in the state. According to the Oregon Community Foundation, in 2018, Oregon had the second highest per-capita rate of unsheltered homeless people in the country; that’s about 14,000 individuals.
The initiative thus takes steps to find housing for recovering substance abusers. “It’s hard to tell someone that they would benefit from treatment when they’re living on the street,” Sutton said.
Furthermore, the initiative offers individuals caught with a drug the option to choose between a civil infraction punishable by a maximum $100 fine or a referral to a health service provider who can recommend further treatment.
“We’re trying to solve drug addiction in a health-centered way,” Sutton told Leafly. “It’s completely non-coercive.”
Sutton explained that the program is based in part on a similar measure in Portugal that was enacted in 2001. “They removed criminal penalties and made access to treatment and harm reduction. They saw rates of HIV infections drop significantly because all of a sudden people didn’t need to hide in the shadows. And there was funding for treatment.”
Prepping for the general election
While the success of the signature drive is unprecedented, approval in November is by no means assured. If nothing else, though, the issue of drug reform will likely be widely discussed in the weeks leading up to the election. A separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use is also likely to appear on the Oregon ballot.
“We’ll continue what we’ve already been doing,” Sutton said. “The first part of the campaign was the uphill battle to collect signatures. Now we’re moving forward and showing people why it’s necessary so they’ll come out and vote for it in November.”
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