In November 2020, a near-landslide of Oregon voters – 58.5% – approved Measure 110, which generally decriminalized small-scale possession of illicit drugs. That passage was a call to change the state’s core policy.
Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the pro-110 Drug Policy Alliance, said, “This confirms a substantial shift in public support in favor of treating drug use with health services rather than with criminalization.”
State Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, remarked, “We need to look at things outside of the traditional war on drugs approach. That’s been going on for 50 years. And I ask everyone, so what do we have to show for this? And it’s 50 years and how many billions, if not trillions, of dollars have been spent?”
The approach relied strongly on law enforcement, prison and the criminal justice system. Critics noted that relatively few people really kicked their problems in prison, and once out their lives were so constricted – with few practical choices about where to live or work – that they often relapsed.
Those concerns, aired widely in 2020, have faded from public view – though not from validity – amid arguments that Measure 110 hasn’t worked.
A number of county governments have called for 110’s repeal. An August Emerson poll suggested a majority of Oregonians felt the same, but there’s reason for skepticism. The poll was backed by the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions, whose spokesman, Kavin Sabet, has blasted decriminalization, calling it “part of a very well thought out multi-decade plan by those who want to legalize drugs and the billionaires who are behind it.”
“I do think that if Oregon repeals or replaces Measure 110 or continues to have that buyer’s remorse, which is certainly where the momentum is, this could stop the legalization movement in its tracks because this really puts a dent in those plans of legalization advocates,” Sabet said.
For all the talk about repealing Measure 110, most legislative activity now seems to involve additions and fixes for its problems rather than changing the core direction, which is what approval of Measure 110 by voters signals the public wants. However, the will of voters can and should be met with changes on how to execute that new direction. The largest failure with Measure 110, so far, has been implementation: Prevention and treatment efforts have been slow, along with measures to ban activity, such as the public use of drugs, to mirror state law on alcohol and marijuana.
Measure 110 has suffered from its timeline – changing enforceable drug laws in just 13 weeks between the election and the law change and long before treatment and other efforts could be set up – along with several gaps in the law.
Many early complaints about the measure concerned the slow expansion of treatment efforts. More recently, however, those projects have expanded. The 2021 Senate Bill 755 set up Behavioral Health Resource Networks, described as “an entity or group of entities working together to provide comprehensive, community-based services and supports to people with substance use disorders or harmful substance use.” This took time. The state set up a network in each county and tribal area before using grant funds to cover the cost of services to individuals.
The measure probably was overly comprehensive and uniform: Different drugs may call for different responses. Approaches to dealing with opioids (many of which are legal in some cases) is a different proposition than going after methamphetamines or cocaine. Legislation could address the differences.
Even more important is the absence in 110 of serious leverage to pressure – even force – drug users away from bad behavior and into treatment or some other consequence. What might that leverage look like? One option might involve building on the drug courts, active in Oregon as in many other states for many years by giving public officials – and maybe judges – broad authority to compel people to comply with recovery efforts.
Policymakers can consider as well that much of Oregon’s law relating to drugs, establishing crimes and penalties relating to manufacture and trafficking, remains in force and continues to be a powerful tool.
In October a large Oregon delegation visited Portugal, which two decades ago moved from a crimalized-based to a health service approach to drug use, to pick up lessons from the experience. Portugal seems to have little interest in reversing its course.
One of the participants, Janie Gullickson, the executive director of the Portland-based Mental Health and Addiction Association, remarked that, “It took Portugal eight years to see results they were hoping to see from their drastic change from a criminal approach to addiction to a health care approach. So it’s going to take time, innovation and collaboration. We’re year three, right?”
Elected officials seldom are wise simply to smack down a clearly expressed will of the voters. Voters do tend to appreciate, though, efforts to make their will work better.
(This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.)