Oregon drug decriminalization measure sparks behind-the-scenes debate over treatment provisions

By Jeff Mapes (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Aug. 20, 2020 1 p.m. Updated: Aug. 21, 2020 8:39 p.m.

Some local groups worry Measure 110 will hurt efforts to raise the cost of alcohol to support more options.

The initiative to decriminalize the possession of personal amounts of drugs and boost funding for drug treatment in Oregon is in a promising political position.


So far, the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance has put about $2.4 million into the campaign for what would be the first statewide law of its kind, and no well-funded opponent has emerged.

Behind the scenes, however, backers of the measure have been engaged in tense conversations with officials from the state’s treatment and recovery communities over the measure’s impact and potential changes. And one key, Black-led group that works to promote racial equity has at least temporarily pulled its endorsement.

At heart are concerns about whether the measure — which also diverts cannabis tax money to boost funding for drug treatment programs — oversells its backers’ promise to greatly expand access to treatment programs and torpedoes existing efforts to build political support for increasing alcohol taxes.

State Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, one of the officials involved in the discussions, said she now finds herself “between a rock and a hard place” and is neutral on the initiative, now designated as Measure 110.

“By no stretch of the imagination do I want to oppose it,” she said. “But I am struggling with what we will do with it if it does pass.”

OPB obtained recent emails between local officials and the alliance, and they show the tension. They followed what Sanchez called a “difficult conversation” in a July 29 video call involving Drug Policy Alliance officials and several people involved in working to curb drug and alcohol abuse Oregon.

The Drug Policy Alliance, which has received major funding from billionaire investor George Soros, has long been involved in pushing for an end the legal war on drugs. The group helped finance a number of marijuana-legalization measures around the country, including the 2014 initiative in Oregon.

The new emails show the officials peppering alliance officials — including Kassandra Frederique, the group’s incoming executive director — with concerns about the initiative campaign and demands that measure proponents support legislative changes if it is approved by voters in November.

Frederique defended the alliance’s campaign in an Aug. 7 email to participants in the earlier video call. Officials for both the campaign and the alliance said this week that they believe their funding plans for drug treatment could produce major gains for a state now ranked among the nation’s lowest for access to treatment.

Matt Sutton, an alliance spokesperson, said in a statement that “Oregonians simply can’t wait” for efforts to increase alcohol taxes.

Devon Downeysmith, a spokeswoman for the pro-Measure 110 campaign, said in a statement that raising alcohol taxes is an uphill political battle and that part of the initiative’s attraction to voters is that it doesn’t hike taxes.

“This is a strong measure, as evidenced by the broad and deep support it has,” she wrote, citing support from more than 80 organizations, including many people in the treatment community.

Still, the measure’s backers have clearly been facing rising concerns in some corners.

In an Aug. 4 email, Nkenge Harmon Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Portland, said her organization was “pausing” its endorsement of the initiative, Measure 110, after becoming concerned that the Drug Policy Alliance had not worked closely enough with existing treatment and recovery groups and with local communities of color.


“I was surprised that DPA will not consider any community investments in support of Oregon’s efforts to end our addiction crisis in lieu of large payments to the good ol’ boys and girls of Oregon political consultants,” wrote Harmon Johnson.

In an interview, Harmon Johnson said she supports decriminalization but now has further questions about the drug-treatment provisions.

A July 30 email came from two officials involved in recovery and treatment issues, Mike Marshall of Oregon Recovers and Tony Vezina of the 4th Dimension Recovery Center, as well as Se-ah-dom Edmo, executive director of the MRG Foundation. Formerly known as the McKenzie River Gathering, the group provides grants for a wide range of social justice programs.

The trio said in their email that they believed from the beginning that “DPA staff and political consultants have pursued a ‘divide and conquer’ approach to its work in Oregon” and that the video call seemed like a continuation of that.

They said the New York group has failed to “meaningfully” consult with many of the main stakeholders dealing with addiction and treatment in Oregon. And they said the initiative campaign’s message “undermines the larger, multi-year effort to raise the price of alcohol” to develop stronger treatment and recovery programs in Oregon. In essence, they fear political support for raising taxes on alcoholic beverages will disappear if voters think the need for substance abuse treatment has been met by Measure 110.

The three officials issued several demands — which they said were backed by other officials from Oregon involved in the July 29 conversation — that calls on the Drug Policy Alliance to change its campaign messaging and agree to support legislative action to revamp measure if it is approved by voters in November.

Among other things, they called for the alliance to support existing plans to push for more treatment dollars through higher alcohol taxes and to redirect some marijuana taxes toward helping communities of color impacted by “past criminalization of cannabis.”

They said the alliance should stop focusing on better drug treatment in its advertising and instead focus on decriminalization, while also providing $100,000 to assess the cost of the state’s treatment and recovery needs. A bill to fund such an assessment died in the Legislature this year when the session ended early because of a Republican walkout.

Frederique, who has been at the alliance for a decade, said in her Aug. 7 email that the development of the initiative was “profoundly influenced by Oregon stakeholders” and that her group has worked closely with communities of color. She said that she hoped that any differences on tactics and strategy “do not overshadow the common goals that will be accomplished” by the measure.

Sutton and Downeysmith both portrayed much of the opposition as coming from Marshall, who heads Oregon Recovers and has been publicly critical of the measure since it was introduced a year ago. Marshall declined to comment for this story, as did some of the other participants who said they didn’t want to jeopardize their ability to work out a deal with the Drug Policy Alliance.

The ballot measure includes two funding streams for improving and expanding drug treatment options in Oregon. The chief source of money would come from diverting a large share of cannabis taxes, which have out-paced initial estimates from when the drug was legalized in 2014. The biggest loser in such a switch would be Oregon schools, which would see their cannabis tax revenues drop by about $36 million a year according to a state analysis.

The same analysis shows the measure would provide about $91 million a year for treatment and associated programs. In addition, the measure directs savings from foregoing drug arrests, which the state said could initially produce about $12 million a year for treatment. Sponsors say that is a big increase in the $25 million a year that the state spends outside the Medicaid system for substance abuse treatment.

But diverting cannabis taxes away from existing programs would also cut about $20 million a year in funding for a variety of mental health, treatment and prevention programs. And the measure also sets up new assessment and referral centers around the state to direct people into treatment. Critics say that could be unnecessarily expensive. Supporters say they think it can be easily grafted onto current programs.

Under Measure 110, people arrested for possession of drugs would face a non-criminal $100 fine, which would be waived if they get assessed for treatment.

James O’Rourke is a Gresham lawyer who is working with a No on Measure 110 political committee set up just last week to oppose the initiative. He said several treatment providers are involved in the opposition campaign, although the committee hasn’t reported receiving any contributions yet. He said Oregon doesn’t need new assessment centers, and he questioned whether the measure would provide what the state really needs: treatment beds for the indigent.

O’Rourke has a flurry of other objections to the measure. He said that people arrested for possession are increasingly diverted to programs offering treatment, giving them incentive they need to tackle their substance abuse problems.

“A lot of people need that,” O’Rourke said, adding that these intervention programs have helped keep many people from sliding deeper into addiction. He said many of those with addictions — particularly if they are professionals — would simply pay a $100 fine and avoid treatment under the system decriminalization would set up.

Sutton, the Drug Policy Alliance spokesman, countered that “criminalization is not treatment” and that it too often leads to worse problems if someone is left with a criminal record.

O’Rourke said the opposition “will do the very best we can,” but added, “I can’t say we’re going to have millions of dollars.”