Oregon has been the center of national attention for its high-octane clashes between law enforcement and protesters, but the state has the potential to make a lasting impact this election by becoming the first to decriminalize drug possession.
Oregon’s ballot Measure 110, which has the support of high-profile figures such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and singer John Legend, would remove criminal penalties for personal possession of small amounts of controlled substances, including heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine.
If it passes, anyone caught with controlled substances would be given a $100 fine, which can be waived if they get a health assessment done through an addiction recovery center. The measure calls for funding drug treatment programs by using a portion of state tax revenue from the sale of marijuana, which was legalized in Oregon six years ago. Oregon decriminalized marijuana back in 1973, the first state to do so. Decriminalization means the removal of criminal penalties — including prison time — for possession, but not for drug sales or manufacturing.
Supporters say funding for drug treatment will also come from money saved through accompanying reductions in spending on arrests and state prisons. The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission says the measure would lead to nearly a 91 percent decrease in drug possession-related arrests and convictions and would reduce racial disparities in drug arrests and convictions by 95 percent.
Efrain Palma, who works as a counselor at Operation Nightwatch Portland, a nonprofit that serves the homeless community, says Measure 110 will have a positive effect on the people he serves.
“These people on the road run from us on cold nights because they need another shot or another dose, they’re freezing and hungry and they need help,” he said. “If Measure 110 comes into effect we can increase our reach. They will come to shelters, they will feel welcome and not shy away from help if we stop demonizing drugs and addiction.”
Opponents of the measure argue that eliminating penalties will lead to more drug use and addiction as people will not be deterred through fear of punishment.
State Rep. Jeff Barker, a Democrat from Washington County who was a state police officer and a police officer in Portland earlier in his career, is one of the most vocal critics of the measure. He says simply giving those caught with drugs a referral to treatment doesn’t mean they will go willingly.
“In my police career, it was heartbreaking to see the same faces and new ones over and over who couldn’t get themselves into treatment alone. You never get over responding to a call where someone, particularly a young person, has tragically died due to an overdose,” Barker said.
“My work in the Legislature was informed by those experiences, and by local experts in law enforcement, judges, and medical professionals, not political consultants and special interest groups with radical ideas for Oregon’s justice system,” Barker added. The ballot measure is supported by his state Democratic Party but opposed by state Republicans.
A major portion of funding for the initiative comes from the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which helped finance marijuana legalization efforts in Oregon and has closely studied pioneering efforts in Portugal, where all drugs were decriminalized in 2001 and users were pushed towards a public health system that helped them with addiction and harm reduction.
Both supporters and opponents of the Portuguese reforms, however, have been guilty of sometimes misrepresenting the impact of the policy there, with those in favor overstating its benefits while those against have ignored or incorrectly disputed them, according to the Transform Drug Policy Foundation.
Drug-related deaths did go down drastically, and drug-related crimes also declined, the foundation found. However, data on drug use is contradictory. While some studies say drug use has declined among those aged 15-24, the population most at risk of initiating drug use, others cited by the foundation say consumption has risen among adolescents to pre-reform levels after an initial decline. Such policies therefore seem to be effective in reducing harm to individuals and society, but it’s unclear if they are as effective in curtailing drug use.
— Oregon Democrats (@ORDems) September 23, 2020
Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in 2017 in which he compared the approach to addiction in the United States with Portugal’s:
The United States drug policy failed spectacularly, with about as many Americans dying last year  of overdoses — around 64,000 — as were killed in the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq Wars combined. In contrast, Portugal may be winning the war on drugs — by ending it.
Due to a lack of public polling data, it is unclear how many voters in Oregon support taking Portugal’s path.
Advocates like Palma say it will be worth it if drug users are given a second chance. “These people, you know, many are good people feeding into their addictions,” he said. “If we can get them the treatment they need, they may get better.”