Oregon Takes a Big Step Toward Decriminalizing All Drugs

    Oregon drug policy reformers are ahead of schedule in making drug decriminalization and revamped treatment resources a reality. The organizers behind Initiative Proposal 44 (IP44) have already exceeded the hundreds of thousands of signatures required to qualify their measure for the November 2020 ballot.

    On March 5, the campaign announced that it had collected 125,000 signatures supporting the measure—the number needed was 112,020. Although the petitioners hit the target four months before the deadline, they will keep pushing forward with getting more signatures to be sure—those collected have to be verified by the Oregon state government, and some are likely to be tossed out for illegibility or inaccurate addresses.

    “We know we have great support across the state, but we’re not taking signatures and votes for granted,” Anthony Johnson, a former criminal defense attorney and one of the three chief petitioners for IP44, told Filter. “We’re going to be traveling all over the state educating Oregonians about our measure that will add more treatment and reduce harmful imprisonments.”

    The proposed legislation, The Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, would reduce what would currently be misdemeanor drug possession charges to civil fines only—fines that can be waived if the defendant agrees to a voluntary health assessment by the measure’s proposed Addiction Recovery Centers. Funded by cannabis tax dollars, the initiative’s Centers would offer 24/7 triage for acute care needs, health assessments, intensive case management, peer support and outreach.

    “The two issues go hand in hand,” said Johnson. The scarcity of treatment resources for the one in 11 Oregonians struggling with a substance use disorder compounds with mass incarceration, with over eight thousand people arrested for drugs every year. “We have people who are sitting in jail for treatment and the judge won’t release them because there aren’t any beds.”

    In coastal Tillamook County between 2012 and 2016, Oregonains were dying at the highest rate in the state, with 13 opioid-involved deaths per 100,000 residents. During that time period, Tillamook had zero buprenorphine prescribers and zero opioid treatment programs.

    By eliminating criminal penalties, the initiative, Johnson believes, will encourage people to come “into the light, to not feel like criminals, so they can be honest with their families when they want to get help.” If IP44 passes in November, Oregonians who use drugs problematically will get “treatment on demand,” he hopes.

    “Oregonians are dying every day because they can’t access treatment,” said chief petitioner Janie Gullickson in a press release. “And in the meantime, if they are caught with drugs, they are criminalized, which only creates further barriers to accessing treatment and recovery. Oregon can do better.”

    If the bill passes and small-scale possession of all drugs is decriminalized, it would be a historic first for the nation. The legality of drugs would then resemble the situation established since 2001 in Portugal. And it makes sense that Oregon should blaze the trail.

    “Oregonians have always been early adopters of drug policies that shift the emphasis towards health and away from punishment,” said Theshia Naidoo, managing director of Criminal Justice Law and Policy at Drug Policy Action, in the press release.

    Oregon legalized marijuana through a ballot measure back in 2014. And in 2017, the state legislature voted to make possession of small quantities of all drugs, including heroin and methamphetamine, a misdemeanor instead of a felony. One concession in that law was the continued ability for prosecutors to bring felonies for defendants with a prior conviction, but IP44 would close that loophole.

    Photograph of Portland, Oregon by Jamidwyer via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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