“I was so looking forward to the gatherings and the volunteer events and the door-knocking,” said Haven Wheelock, who runs the needle-exchange program at the Portland, Oregon, social services program Outside In. She was speaking of plans last year to build support for a ballot measure that would make Oregon the first state in the U.S. to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs including heroin, meth, and other hard drugs—and drive revenues from the state’s legal marijuana industry into more treatment options for drug users.
Then came COVID—and all of that support-building work had to be done virtually, including soliciting by mail the 112,000 signatures necessary to get so-called Measure 110 on the ballot.
But guess what? With the endorsement of more than 130 diverse organizations, including the Oregon Food Bank, the Association for School Social Workers, and many local unions including the powerful government-workers’ AFSCME, the measure passed on Nov. 3 by a comfortable margin—nearly 56% of the vote. That makes Oregon a national pathbreaker on drug policy—much as it was when, in 1973, it became the first state to decriminalize possession of marijuana. (It fully legalized marijuana in 2015.)
Pro–public health and anti–law enforcement drug policy advocates were elated. “Today’s victory is a landmark declaration that the time has come to stop criminalizing people for drug use,” Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which was behind the measure, told The Washington Post of the win in a Nov. 4 story. “Measure 110 is arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date.” (Nobody from the Drug Policy Alliance returned calls or emails from TheBody.)
Promotion of the measure was driven by reams of data showing that, for decades, incarceration of drug users has not decreased drug use or deaths related to it, but instead has only disproportionately jailed Black and Brown people, setting them up with criminal records that make future chances at housing, employment, and other opportunities more difficult.
The measure, which now gives drug users the option of paying a $100 parking-ticket-like fine or attending planned “addiction recovery centers” that will be funded with marijuana money, was based on similar reforms in countries including Portugal, where officials have said that decriminalization of drug possession in 2000 has decreased drug-use deaths while increasing those who go into treatment.
“One of the most exciting things about 110 is that it reframes drug policy from a criminal justice to a health care issue, which is what we’ve been advocating for years,” said Jennifer Flynn Walker, a Center for Popular Democracy organizer who has been working the past few years toward a national plan to address the opioid epidemic as a public-health crisis in dire need of funding for expanded treatment.
According to Flynn Walker, 110 also ties into popular demands to defund the police “because it’s saying to stop giving the police tons of money to do things they were never meant to do, such as arresting people who are suffering from substance use. What they really need is access to treatment, harm reduction services [such as clean needles, which prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis, and the overdose prevention drug Narcan], and other things like housing and food.”
Not a Unanimous Move
According to Wheelock, the measure faced vocal pushback from many state district attorneys (though not the one representing Portland), as well as some of the for-profit drug treatment providers. “I think they support not punishing people for drug use, but they’re invested in the status quo. It’s scary to envision a new system when we’ve been operating under the same one for almost 100 years,” Wheelock said.
Her take on that is echoed by Renee Yandel, executive director of the HIV Alliance, which provides harm reduction services to much of rural Oregon, who said that though she personally supports 110, her executive committee decided not to formally endorse the measure “because they didn’t want to jeopardize our relationships with law enforcement and treatment providers in rural areas.”
She added: “Some providers, many of which are in recovery themselves, have told me that what happens to [drug users] post-arrest is a motivator for recovery, and that removing engagement with law enforcement could remove that motivator. But from my own point of view, plenty of our clients have been arrested multiple times for possession and it’s not leading to them getting into, or being successful in, treatment.”
She also added, “I’m not concerned this is going to increase drug use.” Unlike with legalization of marijuana, she said, “I don’t think many people are going to say, ‘Well now that I’ll only get a fine, I’m going to start injecting heroin and meth.’”
But she did say she worried that there wouldn’t be enough in-patient treatment bandwidth in the state—literally, beds—to meet the new demand that the measure is supposed to encourage. “Providers never have enough capacity,” she said.
Wheelock agrees that that is a concern, but adds that having so many drug users wanting to get into treatment is a “great problem to have.” She added, “Almost $100 million is going into creating this system, and now the hard work begins.” She said that the measure calls for the Oregon Health Authority to oversee an accountability council—made up of people with a history of substance use as well as medical professionals, social workers, and researchers—to oversee the grantmaking process for ramping up services.
Which States Are Next?
Will other states follow Oregon’s lead? Such efforts are already underway in states including California, Washington, and Vermont. And in this election cycle, yet more states legalized marijuana for either recreational or—as in highly conservative Mississippi—medical use. Clearly, there is a broad trend away from, rather than further toward, arresting and jailing people for drug use, even if the use of marijuana remains a federal crime—and outgoing President Trump’s Department of Justice has said it would prosecute any locality that tried to set up a so-called safe consumption site, where drug users could use under trained supervision so that they do not overdose.
“I wouldn’t be shocked if [other states, especially those that have already legalized marijuana] were closely behind” Oregon in decriminalizing use of other drugs, said Wheelock. “If we can demonstrate that the sky doesn’t fall, I think other places will follow.”
Key to moving such measures forward in other states, she said, is to “bring together the biggest and most diverse group of people [and organizations] you possibly can, in order to create something that is strong and resilient.”
And it’s also important, she said, to “be hopeful and brave. The war on drugs is a failed policy. Thousands and thousands are dying every year from substance abuse disorders, and we have to do something different, starting with not just arresting people.”