Another Oregon First

With a measure on the November ballot, Oregon could become first state in the nation to decriminalize drugs

Come November, Oregon voters will have the opportunity to decriminalize drug use, a move that the Oregon Criminal Justice Commision says will lower racial disparities for drug arrests by 95 percent. The move would make Oregon the first state in the U.S. to decriminalize all drugs. 

Ballot Measure 110, also known as the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, would reduce possession of drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction and $100 fine. This measure doesn’t legalize any drugs, and larger offenses such as the manufacturing or distributing of drugs would still receive criminal penalties. 

Historically, racial and ethnic minority groups have been disproportionately burdened by convictions for possessing controlled substances. Data collected by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commision shows that while Black people make up 1.9 percent of Oregon’s population, they received 4.7 percent of all misdemeanors and felonies for possessing controlled substances. 

If Measure 110 were to pass, both Black and Native American convictions would decrease by an estimated 94 percent and would instead be considered civil infractions, proponents say. 

Anthony Johnson, the chief petitioner and supporter of the measure, says savings from the reduction in arrests and convictions would go toward funding the bill. Johnson was also the chief petitioner and director of the Measure 91 campaign that legalized cannabis in Oregon in 2015.

“Excess marijuana tax revenue above $45 million goes into a fund along with the savings that the state will experience from no longer arresting, prosecuting and jailing people for drug offenses. That fund will then fund drug treatment and recovery services including transitional housing and job training and placement,” Johnson says. 

Johnson also says this fund will be dispersed by a committee composed of drug addiction experts, researchers and people who have personally recovered from drug addiction. 

One such program that could benefit from this increased funding is Eugene’s White Bird Clinic, in addition to its CAHOOTS program. CAHOOTS is a community-based public safety system that sends medics and mental health workers to crises involving mental illness, homelessness and addiction. CAHOOTS takes about 20 percent of all 911 calls in Eugene and has gained national attention as a police alternative.

White Bird Clinic’s Larry Weinerman says the initiative is the first step in treating drug addiction as a mental health issue instead of a legal issue. Unlike misdemeanors, civil infractions don’t show up on your criminal record. Weinerman is the director of White Bird’s Chrysalis Behavioral Health unit that works to help adults who need alcohol or drug abuse treatment as well as mental health services.

“We have a lot of people that come to treatment that don’t want anyone to know they are in treatment. They don’t want their employer to know, or sometimes even their spouse to know,” Weinerman says. “It’s going to take years to reframe substance abuse from a legal moral failing into something different. The sooner we can start, the better off we will be.”

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