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Kermis: Is Oregon prepared to pioneer new approach to drug abuse?

In November, Oregon voters will have the opportunity to vote on Measure 110, the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act. And action couldn’t come too soon.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already deadly addiction epidemic in America, increasing the desperate need in Oregon for drug and alcohol rehabilitation services.

Joseph Kertis is a veteran healthcare professional turned journalist. Former clinical director at a drug and alcohol treatment center, his experience in substance abuse and addiction recovery give him a unique insight into our nation’s opioid epidemic. He uses this knowledge in his writing to present an expert view in hopes of spreading awareness through education. Based in neighboring Lincoln County, he is a featured author on the healthcare website, www.addicted.org.

According to proponents, one of every 11 Oregon residents is struggling with a substance disorder. And Oregon ranks dead last in the nation in providing the treatment they need.

Given the lack of national focus on expanding human services, and Oregon’s poor record on addiction treatment, you’d think the measure would be headed for a landslide win. It’s hard to imagine anyone opposing a measure with such a laudable title and goal.

However, Measure 110 has managed to draw considerable controversy, mainly due to its decriminalization component.

The initiative aims to decriminalize simple non-commercial possession of nearly all drugs within the state’s borders. Now a Class A misdemeanor subject to a year in prison and $6,250 fine, possession would become a Class E violation with a $100 fine or submission to an addiction assessment.

Those found in possession of a small, personal amount of most drugs would be given a citation, much like a traffic ticket. Instead of paying the associated fine, they would have the option to participate in a drug and alcohol assessment to determine their need for treatment.

The measure would leave stiff criminal penalties unchanged for those engaged in manufacture and sales. However, that requirement doesn’t sway the opposition.

Opponents are concerned the initiative’s treatment orientation might cause lazy voters unknowingly to decriminalize possession for a wide range of drugs, including cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.

That’s something they oppose. They maintain it causes addiction rates to skyrocket and and alienate law enforcement officers as allies in the war on drugs.

The official ballot title reads, “Provides statewide addiction recovery services; marijuana taxes partially finance; reclassifies possession penalties for speecific drugs.” Opponents feel that misses the mark when it comes to decriminalization.

Another controversial aspect is the proposed treatment funding source — tax revenue from the sale of legal marijuana. 

Oregon has a history of being on the cutting edge, and so it was with Measure 91, passed in 2014. The measure went beyond previous decriminalization to authorize legal recreational marijuana consumption and cultivation.

Since then, Oregon has continued to reap financial benefits from the highly taxed industry. In 2019, Oregon’s cannabis tax revenue topped $102 million, a 24% increase from 2018.

Currently, 25% of that revenue is split between prevention and treatment for mental health issues and drug abuse, almost $50 million over the last two years.

Should Measure 110 pass in November, revenue exceeding $45 million would be used to fund increased access to substance abuse treatment. That figures to nearly double current funding for the addiction component. 

The move to decriminalize possession and expand treatment options has gained impetus from the recent unrest triggered by the death of George Floyd at police hands. A keynote of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been drawing a sharp increase in media coverage and public support in the wake of Floyd’s death, is changing the emphasis from punishment to treatment for those caught in the throes of addiction.

It’s no secret African American and other ethnic minority groups are disproportionately targeted for drug arrests.

A recent report from Albany, New York, noted 97% of the 134 marijuana cases prosecuted criminally there focused on Black defendants. Systemic racism is still prevalent in the criminal justice system, despite the attention focused on reform in recent months. 

Drug arrests can ruin someone’s life. They can trap people in the legal system and tag them with a permanent criminal record, severely limiting their future options.

Assessing fines such defendants are often unable to pay inevitably leads to further violations and charges. Before they know it, they become engulfed in the system. 

Black Americans remain the target of these charges more often than not, despite representing a vastly smaller percentage of both the overall population and population of drug abusers. Despite Oregon’s recent status as a bastion of progressive policy, its history is fraught with racism.

Oregon at its inception was the only state to ban Black people from its borders. As a legacy, Portland remains 72.2% white, making it the whitest major city in America. This demonstrates the lasting impact systemic racism can have on shaping the landscape of America. 

As with any ballot measure, valid arguments can be made both for and against. And incorporating two layers of complexity adds to the dilemma.

Voters are not just choosing to increase funding for addiction treatment. Having already voted to decriminalize marijuana, they are now being asked to allow harder drugs as well — a step no other state has taken.

However, proponents feel the two issues inextricably connected.

Two separate measures, one to decriminalize drug use and the other to expand treatment for drug addition, could produce different results, they argue. And that could leave one hand working without the other. 

So far, the opposition has focused mainly on the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act title. It considers omission of the interconnected decriminalization element deceptive.

Maybe it’s time opponents moved on to issues raised in the actual workings of the act.

Perhaps they should be considering questions such as how many times a user can afford $100 to put off seeking help. Or what happens to people who can’t even pay a $100 fine the first time, because they are homeless and without resources. Is it fair to deny them a choice?

As an addiction recovery advocate of long standing, Measure 110 seems to contain more positives than negatives to me, upon full examination of the big picture. But this doesn’t mean it’s an entirely sensible and unflawed proposal.

Thankfully, those who want to know before making up their mind can read the full measure in advance. 

There are multiple sources. Here’s one: https://ballotpedia.org/Oregon_Measure_110,_Drug_Decriminalization_and_Addiction_Treatment_Initiative_(2020)

If we don’t care enough to vote at all, or to reach reasoned judgments when we do cast ballots, what do the results matter anyway?

Comments

Hibb

A "yes" vote supports making personal non-commercial possession of a controlled substance no more than a Class E violation (max fine of $100 fine) and establishing a drug addiction treatment and recovery program funded in part by the state's marijuana tax revenue and state prison savings.

A "no" vote opposes reclassifying personal non-commercial possession of a controlled substance from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class E violation, thereby maintaining the existing maximum penalty for a Class A misdemeanor of one year in prison and a $6,250 fine.

The measure would reclassify personal/non-commercial drug possession offenses. Possession of a controlled substance in Schedule I-IV, such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines, would be reclassified from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class E violation resulting in a $100 fine [-or-] a completed health assessment. Individuals who manufacture or distribute illegal drugs would still be subject to a criminal penalty. The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission estimated that convictions for possession of a controlled substance would decrease by 3,679 or 90.7%.

Are we as a society prepared to decriminalize such soul destroying illicit drugs as heroin, cocaine, and meth? Are we prepared for the backlash and disappointment that will present itself when junkies can roam freely without any fear of arrest and the only punishment is a citation? I hope not.

One thing about all of these "programs" that the Legislature, Department of Corrections, and even community sponsored centers have in common is that they do NOT work. And yet each year we are told about this program or that program and how wonderful they really are, when in reality they are quite ineffectual due to there being the same old thing repackaged.

When will we learn?

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