New Oregon Ballot Proposal Would Roll Back Voter-Approved Drug Decriminalization Law

A group in Oregon wants to make drug possession a crime again, having unveiled two versions of a would-be ballot initiative that would undo key provisions of Measure 110, the 2020 voter-approved measure that decriminalized simple possession of all drugs.

The proposal—which backers say they’ll pursue both through the state legislature and at the ballot box, if necessary—would make it a misdemeanor crime to possess certain “hard” drugs, including fentanyl, methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and others. It would also create a new misdemeanor criminal offense for using unlawful drugs in public.

A second version of the measure would go further, increasing penalties for manufacture or delivery of substances in cases where a person is a repeat offender or where drug use causes death. The expanded version would also make possession of tableting or encapsulating machines a felony and broaden the definition of drug “delivery” to include possession with the intent to transfer.

Notably, the broader version would also transfer control over Measure 110 funding, which comes from state cannabis tax revenue, to the state Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission.

The “Coalition to Fix and Improve Ballot Measure 110” includes political and business figures from both sides of the aisle, including former Republican lawmaker Max Williams, political consultant Dan Lavey, progressive strategist Paige Richardson and Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton.

Financial supporters include some of the state’s wealthiest residents, such as Columbia Sportswear President and CEO Tim Boyle ($300,000), Nike co-founder Phil Knight ($200,000), real-estate mogul Jordan Schnitzer ($50,000), former Columbia Distributing Company chair Ed Maletis ($50,000) and the Goodman family, a major property owner in Downtown Portland ($100,000).

“Even casual observers of Portland can recognize we are well off track here,” Boyle, who lives in the city, told The Oregonian newspaper. As for recriminalizing possession, he said that “the incentive of being incarcerated is powerful. It means people take it seriously. They have an incentive for getting clean.”

Williams, the former legislator, said Measure 110 isn’t responsible for Oregon’s problems, but it has exacerbated them. “We know that Ballot Measure 110 didn’t create the homeless crisis or the behavioral-health crisis or is the sole reason we are seeing spikes in crime,” he told The Oregonian. “But we are convinced that Measure 110 is making things a whole lot worse.”

More than 58 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of Measure 110, with many at the time expressing feelings that the war on drugs had failed. But polling recently released by opponents found that 61 percent of respondents now feel the measure has been a failure. A majority also said they believed the law had added to the state’s unhoused population, and nearly 80 percent said they thought heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl use has gotten worse in recent years.

Drug decriminalization supporters, who oppose the new prospective ballot measures, warn that the proposals represent a return to the criminal drug war. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) called the pair of initiatives “not a solution but, instead, a false promise of change.”

More people would die of drug overdoses if the plan becomes law, DPA argued, citing statistics showing that drug consumers are 27 more times likely to die of an overdose after leaving jail or prison. The measure would also increase jail crowding, overburden the courts, divert funding away from treatment programs and increase racial disparities in policing. Black people are policed at a rate 4.3 times higher than white people in Portland, DPA said.

Research published earlier this year also found that overdose deaths may spike after police drug busts. Fatal overdoses nearly doubled in one Indianapolis neighborhood after a major opioid bust.

Other groups, such as the Health Justice Recovery Alliance (HJRA), said they understand why the public might be frustrated by the state’s failure to address the housing crisis as well as problematic drug use. But the organization stressed that recriminalization is not the answer. In a press release, HJRA said the new proposals would “fail to reduce addiction, fail to reduce homelessness, fail to make out streets safer.”

“It is disappointing that the people behind these petitions didn’t talk to Measure 110 providers. We could have told them what is needed to make the measure more effective,” said Shannon Jones, CEO of the Oregon Change Clinic, which provides counseling, housing and outpatient services using funds from Measure 110. “We need more outreach, and the entire system needs increased funding and people need a roof over their head for recovery to be successful. Arresting and jailing people with addiction means they will end up right back on the street with increased overdose risk and a criminal record that will make the road to recovery that much harder.”

With people literally lining up outside Portland detox centers, Katie Nicosia, co-owner of Recovery Works NW, said the state needs more of the facilities, not fewer. “We just opened a new detox center in Portland with Measure 110 dollars and are opening clinics in SW Portland and in Newberg,” Nicosia said. “This proposal puts massive uncertainty into the system just as we finally have full funding and are able to open our doors.”

Larry Turner, a co-founder of Fresh Out in Portland and a leader in the statewide Oregon Black, Brown and Indigenous Advocacy Coalition, tried to put the issue in perspective.

“Drug use has been a problem in many neighborhoods for decades and overdose rates were skyrocketing before passage of Measure 110,” Turner said. “Before passing new laws that will take us back to the days when Black and brown people were disproportionately harmed by criminalization, we need to make Measure 110 more effective without overturning the law and going backwards.”

Legislators already made some adjustments to the decriminalization law during this year, passing a package of reforms in June to provide an oversight council with more staff and administrative aid from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA).

A January audit of the decriminalization measure by the secretary of state found that OHA needed to provide more support and better coordination. It concluded at the time that it was too soon to tell whether Measure 110 programs could curb the state’s drug problems.

The reform bill adopted by lawmakers this year includes an accountability measure, calling for the next secretary of state audit on the law’s implementation to be finished by the end of 2025.

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, filed several proposals during this year’s legislative session to effectively undo Measure 110.

Read the two versions of the new Oregon proposal to recriminalize drug possession below:

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