Oregon Ballot Measure 110 proposes a major change in the way the state handles drug addiction.
If passed, it would move the state away from handling drug abuse as a criminal matter and toward handling it as a public health problem.
It would also make Oregon the first state to make such a dramatic change to its drug laws.
Measure 110 is the fourth of four statewide measures on the ballot in November.
If passed, Measure 110 would decriminalize possession of personal use amounts of drugs, converting current misdemeanor crimes to citations with a $100 fine and no threat of jail time. The fine would be waived if the person sought treatment.
It would also divert marijuana tax dollars into the creation of new drug addiction treatment centers.
Supporters said the measure could dramatically decrease drug addiction in Oregon, and reduce associated crimes. Opponents fear it would backfire, leading to more drug-related crime and other unintended consequences.
One thing’s clear: Oregon has a serious problem with drug addiction. According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1 in 10 adult Oregonians has a substance abuse disorder.
Nearly two people per day on average die of drug overdoses, according to the Oregon Health Authority. And the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission found that 281,758 Oregonians needed treatment within the past year and were unable to get it.
Measure 110 Chief Petitioner Haven Wheelock works with people with drug addictions. As a drug user health services program coordinator for the Portland nonprofit Outside In, she is in charge of the organization’s syringe access and overdose prevention efforts. It’s a job she’s been in since 2002. She also earned a master’s degree through a fellowship from Johns Hopkins University. Her focus was overdose and addiction policy.
Wheelock told The News-Review Monday it’s time for a change.
“The system we have in place right now hasn’t worked. In the last 100 years, we’ve been trying, it’s not been working. And really, part of what’s so exciting for me is this is a chance to try something really new,” she said.
She said decriminalization and treatment is a better choice than jail. The chances addicts will die of an overdose are 15 times higher after a stint in jail than if they were never arrested, she said.
In her experience, what alters people’s behavior isn’t feeling they have to hide, or the threat of jail. It’s knowing they have the tools and access to change, she said.
“I don’t believe we have to punish people to get them to change behaviors. I think that just by the misery that comes with a substance abuse disorder, people want to change. It’s just really hard and really scary,” she said.
Wheelock said the measure is based on the Portuguese model. It’s been about two decades since Portugal decriminalized all drugs. She said research in Portugal and other countries that have since decriminalized drugs indicates they have reduced crime rates, increased rates of people obtaining treatment, and reduced rates of both addiction and problems like overdose and HIV transmission that come with it.
In a letter, a group of Yes on 110 political action committee directors argued arresting people for drug use leads to broken families and lost jobs.
“But worse than arrests are the resulting criminal records, which ruining people’s lives, sometimes haunting them forever,” they wrote.
Those records routinely stop people from getting jobs, promotions, housing, student loans and professional licenses, they said, and all that added stress can drive people to use drugs even more.
Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin opposes the measure.
“I think having some drug addiction treatment and recovery programs is a responsible action, but I think decriminalizing the possession of certain scheduled drugs is very irresponsible,” he said.
While the measure’s supporters anticipate lowered law enforcement costs if it passes, Hanlin doesn’t.
While they might spend less time investigating drug possession crimes, 80% or 90% of the county’s property crimes are related to drug addiction, he said.
“In my mind decriminalizing the possession of drugs is only going to allow or cause more people to use, because there’s no longer a fear of getting caught or getting in trouble,” he said.
And that, he believes, would lead to a larger number of people with addictions.
He also said after marijuana was legalized, police saw an increase in people driving under the influence of marijuana.
“Now we’re going to have to worry about these users of psilocybin mushrooms and heroin and all the other illicit or controlled substances that are out there that people may partake in and get behind the wheel of a car,” he said.
ADAPT Director Greg Brigham said he supports the goals of the measure, but he doesn’t think the proposal will work. He’s worried it would cause a disruption in the pathway to treatment.
Many people currently receive substance use disorder treatment as a result of their involvement in the criminal justice system, he said.
“My main concern with the proposition is that if we remove consequences of drug use without building other pathways to treatment, the net result will be fewer people getting treatment, and thus fewer in recovery,” he said.
He does not believe the ballot box is the place to fix a problem like substance abuse.
“I really think it’s a complex enough matter and important enough that it needs to be worked through the regular legislative process so the issue can be properly studied and the strategy can be vetted to achieve the goal,” he said.
Wheelock said the Legislature has had years to fix the problem and hasn’t done it.
“There’s no better way to have the Legislature invest in doing that than have the citizens of this state say we need this,” she said.