Portland, OR – Oregon voters passed legislation decriminalizing drug possession and expanding treatment for substance abusers and addicts on Tuesday night.
“It takes a lot of courage to try something new, and I’m really proud of our state,” said Haven Wheelock, one of the petitioners who filed the measure. “I’m excited to be a model for other places to show that we don’t have to harm people for being sick.”
Under the law change, possession of small amounts of any drug will classify as a civil violation – akin to traffic offenses – and would be subject to a $100 fine, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
Offenders who agree to undergo a health assessment can bypass the fine altogether.
The legislation does not specify what will become of juveniles who are caught with drugs – an issue that has opponents especially concerned.
“The biggest question is what to do for teenagers who are using these highly addictive street drugs who choose not to engage in treatment?” Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton asked Oregon Public Broadcasting.
“I think It’s a bad idea to decriminalize for children,” defense attorney James O’Rourke agreed. “I think it sends a really bad message to them, and influences their perception of the risks, at a time when it’s the most dangerous drugs have ever been.
Opponents also argue that the state already been offering jail alternatives to most offenders who are convicted of drug possession.
Twenty-six of the 36 counties in Oregon currently have drug court programs, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.
“Sadly, many people only confront their substance use disorder because of a contact with law enforcement which often ends in diversion and treatment,” the Oregon District Attorney’s Association wrote in opposition to the law change.
“This measure will tie the hands of law enforcement and prosecutors everywhere and lead to disastrous results for our communities,” the district attorneys added.
The ballot measure, which goes into effect on Feb.1, is the first of its kind in the United States.
In addition to legalizing drugs, passing the legislation also opened the door for dumping more money into needle exchanges and other “harm-reduction efforts,” additional addiction treatment, and various forms of assistance for addicts, to include housing, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
Oregon generates tens of millions of dollars from the state’s cannabis tax, a portion of which has been helping to fund city and county addiction and mental health programs, Oregon Recovers Executive Director Mike Marshall explained.
Under the measure, those funds will likely be reallocated, Marshall said.
Schools currently receive 40 percent of the cannabis tax revenue, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
Under the law change, schools will lose an estimated $73 million in 2021-2023 due to reallocation of those funds.
“I think it is flawed, but it is now the will of the people,” Marshall told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Proponents argued that the state will save money because less people will be prosecuted and incarcerated.
Drug Policy Alliance Director Kassandra Frederique, a New York-based group, said that she hopes the rest of the nation will follow Oregon’s lead.
“We are hoping that as the country is having conversations about how to use our resources, how to deal with our loved ones, that Oregon will potentially lead the way,” Frederique told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “Oregonians understand that we should be treating drug use as a health issue.”
She said the measure was “a huge sledgehammer to the cornerstone of the war on drugs.”
The Drug Policy Alliance spent about $3.5 million gathering signatures help get Measure 110 on the ballot, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife kicked in another $500,000.
The New York-based group was also instrumental in helping to pass the state’s recreational cannabis legislation in 2014.
According to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, the state already had some of the highest substance abuse rates in the country prior to Measure 110 passing.
It also had one of the poorest rates of access to services, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
One in 11 Oregonians is currently addicted to drugs, according to the ballot measure.
The law change is expected to drop drug possession convictions by a staggering 90 percent, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission concluded.
“Their goal is to move people out of the criminal justice system into the health care system,” Marshall told KATU. “But the health care system isn’t ready to receive them.”