Many Oregonians like to view themselves as progressive trailblazers. But Measure 110 has some gubernatorial candidates suggesting the state has beaten a path to the edge of a bottomless pit.
The pioneering drug decriminalization measure passed comfortably in 2020 with the following goal: That by focusing less on penalizing drug users and more on treating them, the state could see far better results than it had realized in decades of a fruitless drug war.
Beginning in 2021, low-level possession of illicit drugs was no longer an arrestable offense in Oregon — the first state to take such a step. At the same time, the state began a slow process steering hundreds of millions of dollars from cannabis taxes toward beefing up Oregon’s threadbare treatment system. Officials announced Sept. 20 that, after long delays, they’d awarded more than $300 million for services that include housing, needle exchanges, peer outreach and other efforts to support users.
But successes have been slow to emerge, and in the face of rising crime and surging overdoses, all three major candidates for governor say Measure 110 isn’t working. Two are vowing to fight to repeal the measure if elected in November.
Where the candidates stand on Measure 110
“Ballot Measure 110 has created an incredible mess,” Betsy Johnson, a former Democratic state senator running as an unaffiliated candidate, said in a written response to OPB’s questions. “People are literally dying while state government fails to show up with the services this ballot measure promised. I opposed BM 110 and will work to repeal this failed experiment.”
As with many issues in this year’s race, Republican Christine Drazan, the former House minority leader, has a similar stance to Johnson. She says voters were given a false choice when they approved Measure 110: that decriminalizing drug use was a necessary step toward better funding for treatment.
“Given the disastrous rollout and false promises associated with it, I believe that Oregonians will support repeal,” Drazan said. “We have enough money in our current state budget to build on addiction and recovery services without having to also accept the decriminalization of hard drugs.”
Democrat Tina Kotek, the former longtime House speaker, is not as ready to end Oregon’s experiment.
While Kotek says Measure 110 isn’t currently working, she attributes that failure mainly to the delay in getting treatment money out the door, a process that state health officials have taken responsibility for bungling.
“Unfortunately, the state has failed to deliver the promised treatment programs fast enough,” Kotek told OPB. “In response, my opponents want to go back to our failed approach of just throwing people struggling with addiction in jail. I want to fix the problems and actually deliver on what voters demanded.”
As she seeks to differentiate herself from outgoing Gov. Kate Brown — a Democrat and one of the country’s least popular governors according to polls — Kotek has based much of her campaign on a pledge to bring more rigorous oversight to state agencies. That’s the approach she’s promising to take on Measure 110 and substance abuse. Kotek suggests she might fire Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen, who was hired by Brown. (Drazan has pledged to fire all of Brown’s agency heads, while Johnson has been extremely critical of many.)
“I will hold the Oregon Health Authority accountable for managing these critical resources and if that means replacing the current leadership at the agency with a leader who can get the job done, so be it,” Kotek said.
Repeal versus rethinking
The drug decriminalization measure emerged as a major point of contention when all three women met for a debate in Bend last Tuesday. After the candidates laid out their views, Kotek attacked her opponents for pressing for repeal, arguing it would be a waste of valuable time.
“We have people dying, we have an addiction epidemic in our state, and we’re going spend time repealing it?” said Kotek, who called Gov. Brown “absent” on the issue. “You know how much time that takes? How about we just dig in, make sure the dollars are getting out the door to the people who need it?”
That prompted a retort from Drazan, who has attempted to paint Kotek as a status-quo politician incapable of solving problems that have emerged during years of Democratic leadership.
“This is the definition of Tina Kotek’s approach to the governor’s office,” Drazan said. “Don’t change course, don’t change direction, keep doing more of the same. Oregonians need change. If we can’t see what’s right in front of us on Measure 110, she wont see what needs to be changed in any other category.”
Measure 110, and a subsequent bill putting the law into operation, created new networks of services for drug users in every county in Oregon. Those networks were supposed to come online early this year.
But the funding for expanded services ran into a choke point: An oversight and accountability committee made up of service providers and people who’ve been substance users. Created to vet proposals and award grants, the committee found itself overwhelmed by the number of applications and without enough professional staff from the Oregon Health Authority to wade through those applications in a timely fashion.
“We understand the frustration this caused in our communities,” Steve Allen, OHA’s behavioral health director, told state lawmakers. “When you do something for the first time you’re going to make mistakes.”
A rising problem
With services slow to expand, Oregon’s drug problem has seemed to swell.
The state has the highest drug use rate in the nation, according to a recent federal study, and the lowest access to care. Overdoses have surged in recent years, driven largely by the arrival of new and cheaper forms of fentanyl. The number of people who die by consuming too many illicit drugs now far outpaces fatalities from car crashes.
Addictions experts note that overdoses had already begun a steep upward shift before Measure 110 passed. Still, disaffection over the measure has grown as issues such as homelessness and crime have become top concerns of Oregon voters.
Advocates of Measure 110 often point to Portugal, which opted to decriminalize drugs in 2000 and has been a frequent subject of study since. But addiction experts recently told state lawmakers that Oregon’s system is far more permissive and doesn’t forcefully steer people toward treatment for problematic drug use as Portugal does.
“On the one hand we have highly rewarding drugs which are widely available, and on the other little or no pressure to stop using them,” Keith Humphreys, an addiction expert and Stanford University professor, told a state Senate Committee. “Under those conditions we should expect to see exactly what Oregon is experiencing: extensive drug use, extensive addiction and not much treatment seeking.”
Critical to achieving better outcomes, Humphreys said, was more enforcement of the drug laws that remain on the books — things like ending open-air drug markets and ensuring people who commit crimes because of their drug use are sent to treatment.
While a majority of funding under the measure so far has paid for “harm reduction” services for users — for example providing needle exchanges, wound care kits, and the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone — Humphreys argued that Oregon needs to spend more time reducing the harm to the larger community from drugs.
Under Measure 110, police are still able to issue a violation for drug possession, akin to a traffic ticket, though most police departments in the state haven’t found that a productive use of their time. And when police do write citations, most people cited simply ignore them without consequence — a bill lawmakers passed last year ensured there are no sanctions for failing to show up to court for a drug possession violation. The law also allows tickets to be dropped if defendants call a hotline and receive an addiction assessment, but few people have done so.
Rolling back drug decriminalization, as Johnson and Drazan are pledging to do, might be easier said than done.
Democrats are likely to retain control of at least one — and quite possibly both — chambers in the state Legislature in this year’s election. That could make it tough to pass legislation putting the question of decriminalization back before voters. Both Johnson and Drazan have said they would look for voter approval, rather than seeking to repeal the law on their own.
“If the Legislature wouldn’t re-refer Ballot Measure 110 to the voters to get another crack at it, I would lead the charge to get sufficient signatures to put it to the voters again,” Johnson said at last Tuesday’s debate.
Supporters of the drug decriminalization measure insist that it’s still popular. A survey conducted in late August by the progressive firm Data for Progress suggested that a majority of Oregon voters favored keeping the bill in place, with strong support of more than 85% for the notion of better treating addiction. A smaller majority of the 1,051 voters polled — 61% — favored decriminalization, the organization said.
While backers of Measure 110 acknowledge rollout has been rocky, they say Oregonians need to give the sweeping legal change time to mature. It’s been less than 20 months since decriminalization took effect in February 2021.
“We have already reduced thousands of barriers for folks just because they don’t have that criminal record due to having a small amount of drugs in their pocket,” Tera Hurst, executive director of the pro-Measure 110 group the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, said during a recent press conference. “That’s important. What’s more important, or just as important, is all these services that are getting stood up. It’s incumbent on all of us that we’re making sure that that message is getting out.”