Backers of drug decriminalization announced Saturday they now plan to take the issue to Oregon voters this November.
The proposed ballot measure, which has been financed by the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, would make Oregon the first state to remove criminal penalties on possession of illegal drugs.
Canvassers hired by the group have been collecting signatures for several months, but the Oregon consultants working on the campaign had always insisted until now that a final decision hadn’t been made on whether to take the issue to the November ballot.
“By removing harsh criminal penalties, we want to bring people into the light,” said Anthony Johnson, a Portland political consultant who is a chief sponsor of the measure. “We want people to be willing to talk to their friends and families and loved ones and get the treatment they need.”
The measure, now technically known as Initiative Petition 44, would reduce possession of illegal drugs – including heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine – to a non-criminal, $100 citation. And that citation could be waived if a person agrees to get a health assessment at a drug recovery center. Drug trafficking and possession of large amounts of illegal drugs would continue to carry the same criminal penalties.
The proposed ballot measure also calls for providing a big increase in funding for drug treatment, which surveys suggest is more poorly funded in Oregon than in almost any state in the country. Most notably, the measure would divert most cannabis tax revenues away from schools and other services to provide at least $57 million a year for drug treatment. In addition, the measure calls for the state to take savings from reduced incarceration rates for drug crimes and put them into treatment programs.
Those efforts to boost treatment funding have been emphasized by measure petitioners.
Several treatment advocates have endorsed the measure, including Richard Harris. He founded Central City Concern in Portland and once headed the state’s office of Addictions and Mental Health Services.
“The reality of it is that the effort to punish people because they have an addiction has always been a misplaced public policy,” Harris said.
But the initiative, which was first filed last August, has also raised concerns among many providers. Heather Jefferis is executive director for the Oregon Council for Behavioral Health, which represents many of the state’s major treatment providers.
She said in a statement that, “We are not confident this proposal will address Oregon’s longstanding access crisis for Substance Use Disorder or Mental Health treatment services.”
Jefferis did not respond to requests for further comment, but other treatment experts involved with the group said they fear the Drug Policy Alliance’s initiative could interfere with existing efforts to boost drug treatment funding and improve the system’s coordination.
Johnson, one of the initiative’s chief sponsors, said that if the measure is approved by voters the Legislature could make changes any necessary changes to how treatment money is spent. Johnson was also a chief backer of the 2014 initiative that legalized cannabis in Oregon. Legislators also changed several provisions of that measure after it was approved by voters.
The decriminalization measure has met vociferous opposition from some law enforcement officials.
Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote said he worries decriminalization would make it more socially acceptable to use dangerous drugs.
“The trick is to not get people hooked in the first place,” he said. “If you get involved in heroin and methamphetamine, the road back is filled with failure.”
Oregon has already taken several steps toward reducing drug penalties. In 2017, the Legislature lowered several drug-possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors. And in many localities, prosecutors have increasingly focused on diverting drug offenders out of the criminal justice system and into treatment programs.
The Drug Policy Alliance, which helped fund Oregon’s 2104 cannabis legalization measure, has received major funding from billionaire investor George Soros. The group has so far provided virtually all the $850,000 donated to the measure campaign. Johnson said the campaign would be run by Oregonians and expects to attract many in-state donors.