• November 28, 2020

It’s Not just Marijuana: The New Push to Decriminalize all Drugs

 It’s Not just Marijuana: The New Push to Decriminalize all Drugs

Drugs are literally on the ballot in Oregon this November. Original photo by Lizzy Oakley

PORTLAND, ORE. – When marijuana started getting legalized in piecemeal fashion across various states half a decade ago, opponents painted it as a slippery slope: Legalize marijuana, and then what, a society devolving into hard drug use, lawlessness, and vagrancy? On the surface, those predictions look to be coming to fruition this November when Oregon voters will vote to decriminalize possession of most hard drugs. But looks are deceiving. 

Marijuana was once regarded as a gateway to harder drugs, but it’s being de-stigmatized in the national conscience. Eleven states and Washington, DC have now legalized marijuana, and more states are rapidly moving in that direction. 

Even as the majority of Americans have grown more comfortable with relaxing the cannabis portion of the federal government’s formal war on ‘drugs,’ the nation has been ravaged by another war: Big PhRMA – which has fueled the nation’s raging opioid epidemic – and its war on Americans of all stripes. 

The funny thing about those initial, “slippery slope” critics of marijuana is they got one thing right: After the majority of states legalized marijuana – either for medicinal or recreational purposes – over the past decade, tens of thousands of lives were lost annually to drugs.

But no, the sky didn’t fall because a sliver of the failed war on ‘drugs’ was reversed. Rather, the opioid crisis rages on, in part, because the federal government still encourages punishment – rather than treatment – for those struggling with addiction (just last year the Justice Department lost its attempt to block Philadelphia from setting up the nation’s first safe injection site). 

Is Oregon America’s ‘Drug’ Trailblazer?

That’s why Oregon, which was a trailblazer when it came to the legalization of marijuana, is looking to become a national leader again on Election Day 2020. And the efforts aren’t aimed at making American cities like Amsterdam, rather they’re aimed at finally addressing the nation’s addiction and opioid crisis head on. The state that finds itself just shy of last place in terms of access to recovery and treatment services is now home to two dark horse measures that have wheedled themselves onto the November ballot that, if passed, would be the first statewide measures of their kind.  Advocates say they could revolutionize Oregon’s efforts to de-stigmatize addiction and begin the fight to end the war on ‘drugs.’ 

Measure 110 – and sadly, that’s what we call it here – seeks to decriminalize possession of small amounts of most hard drugs, including meth, oxycodone, and cocaine. It came about in earnest in 2017 after the swell of activists who de-felonized possession of most hard drugs that same year, reducing the charge to a misdemeanor, continued to pursue further measures.

“This is a nonpartisan measure, and that’s because addiction has harmed families across the political spectrum, across various demographics. Republic or democrat, rich or poor, rural or city, small towns or suburbia,” Anthony Johnson, the chief petitioner of Measure 110, told The News Station.

Though several cities have experimented with relaxing charging and prosecutions of hard drug possession cases, like Seattle and San Francisco, no state has written decriminalization into law.

Another measure on this November’s ballot would also revolutionize Oregon’s approach to drugs: Measure 109 (again, we don’t do clever names for our ballot measures…) would legalize psilocybin-assisted therapy (psilocybin is the psychoactive ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’). The measure is spearheaded by two therapists in Oregon, Tom and Sheri Eckert who have been working on this measure for close to five years.

Oregonians behind these measures aren’t surprised the state is trailblazing again. In fact, they expect it.

“Oregon has a history of taking pride in pushing a lot of initiatives that have been a catalyst for other issues,” Sam Chapman, campaign manager for Measure 109, told The News Station. “It’s a point of Oregon pride to lead the way in creating new options.”

Original photo by Lizzy Oakley Photography

Meet the Opposition

But Newton’s Third Law is alive and well: The strong support for these measures is countered by an (almost?) equally strong opposition.

Opposition to Measure 110 comes from law enforcement, including the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association and the Oregon District Attorney’s Association – groups that Johnson says “feel that the current drug war policies are working.”

Still, the Oregon District Attorneys Association declined to comment for this piece. 

The measure would reallocate any cannabis tax dollars the state receives above $45 million to treatment, and primarily into recovery centers that those caught with drugs would be able to go to in order to get the $100 fee for possessing small amounts of hard drugs waved. Those centers would be called Addiction Recovery Centers, where people would undergo an in-depth addiction assessment and get connected to further treatment and recovery services, if they’re interested.

“If you arrest people, even if they aren’t convicted, they still have a criminal record that prevents them from getting a job and housing,” Matt Sutton of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New-York based group that helped advocates craft the measure, told The News Station. “This measure provides an incentive for getting treatment without coercing them.”

When the state initially legalized marijuana, they projected it would garner $45 million per year in tax revenue. Within the first six months of this year, revenues reached $84 million.

Local and state law enforcement currently receives 35% of the cannabis tax dollars, education receives 40%, the Oregon Health Authority receives 5% for drug treatment and prevention, and 20% is used for mental health, alcoholism and drug services.

If passed, the measure would reallocate all the cannabis tax dollars funneled to law enforcement.

“Our contention is that by not arresting a thousand people for minor drug possessions, that that money is better allocated to treatment services,” Johnson says.

The measure also mandates that the state “examine the law enforcement savings experienced by not arresting and jailing people,” which Johnson says is anywhere from $12-36 million dollars.

But the measure’s surprising primary opposition, Oregon Recovers -a coalition comprised of recovering addicts and recovery organizations – say their issue with the measure is that it’s structurally porous. They argue it won’t actually increase treatment and recovery – and that it will take away existing funding for treatment.

The measure “takes money from currently funded programs” by re-allocating the 25% marijuana tax money away from treatment services and creating a new pool that would then be allocated to establish the centers, according to Tony Vezina, a Co-Chair of Oregon Recovers. He says that doesn’t represent actual recovery or treatment.

“So it takes treatment away to add it back, to who knows where? That’s a bad policy,” Vezina told The News Station. “Why would you take money away from recovery programs and [have them] come ask for it back?”

The measure’s language states that if a person expresses interest in treatment or recovery, they’ll be given a case manager who helps create a plan to find housing, employment, and treatment services. Vezina worries people will take the health assessment to waive the fee and not pursue treatment.

The Misinformation Campaign

But Measure 110 advocates say misinformation has been spread by naysayers of the measure, including how this would affect for-profit recovery centers and funding mechanisms. 

“There’s been some fear mongering perpetuated by opponents to scare some providers into thinking they’re going to lose revenue or less revenue provided for recovery,” Johnson says. 

For three years now, Oregon Recovers has spearheaded a plan to increase the cost of alcohol in order to garner money for recovery and treatment. So far, their framework hasn’t been successful in getting on the ballot. Vezina says even if Measure 110 is passed, Oregon Recovers will continue to push to get their plan on the ballot.

Oregon Recovers’ biggest gripe with the measure is that it takes away the ability of the legal system to reroute those saddled with charges to receive treatment. Though Vezina acknowledges the stark racial disparities in the criminal justice system, he says using the courts as intermediaries is the best system the state has yet produced – and also the only one.

“The court system has been forced to play this role over the years because no one could spit up anything different,” Vezina says. “It’s not the only place or best place, but it’s what we have right now. But if we’re going to disrupt it we need to be intentional about it.”

There’s been a chasmic shift in how addicts are treated in the 20 years Sergio Gutierrez, an addiction counselor for Polk County, has been in the field. Addiction has gradually come to be seen as an affliction, not a character trait.

He’s supportive of the measure’s intention to address the addiction crisis, though he fears taking the court system away as an intermediary would leave many without a route to treatment.

Removing [courts] is going to be a mess. At this point, I don’t see another way. Because we still rely on the law,” Gutierrez says. “We’re not ready for that.”

Proponents of Measure 110 contend the premise of courts being an intermediary between charges and treatment is a harmful framework, especially for communities of color.

Donell Morgan runs Elevate Oregon, a nonprofit that offers mentorship to K-12 students in the Parkrose School District in Portland. He hesitated to dip his toes into political advocacy until Measure 110 came to him. It just struck a chord.

He says the criminal justice system has long saddled Black youth and adults, along with other minority groups, with convictions that have then left it harder to get housing and employment.

“Once we’re into the system, it becomes one of those things where you cannot make no mistake. That’s difficult for any human being,” Morgan told The News Station. “If we get an opportunity to get the treatment first, if we can avoid the system as much as possible, it keeps that tag off of us.”

Johnson says the bill is long overdue, but “does not end the drug war, and does not end systemic racism in the system”.

The measure’s minutiae aside, those in the addiction and recovery space agree on one thing: Something must be done, and the conversations being had – albeit often tense ones – show the wherewithal to address Oregon’s addiction crisis. 

“We have to get at it some way or another,” says Gutierrez.

A similar sentiment to the addiction crisis’ urgency is the urgency to find innovative ways to treat mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety; both of which have permeated the national sphere of concern due to the social isolation and instability brought on by COVID-19. 

Shrooms, or psilocybin. Original photo by Lizzy Oakley Photography

While foraging for edible mushrooms in Oregon is awfully in-vogue, so too is its less-milktoast cousin experiencing a boost in popularity: Magic mushrooms, and more importantly, its psychoactive ingredient, psilocybin.  

Philip Adler dabbled with mushrooms in high school because he wanted to get high with his friends.But when quarantine hit, he turned back to them. This time for a different purpose. He was struggling with financial difficulties and an altered relationship with his father, who had just been diagnosed with cancer.

For his most recent psychedelic mushroom experience, Adler set up in his grandma’s old room. He set out figurines and pillows and lay dollar bills on the ground in search of financial clarity. He brought a knife with him in case he got scared. Then he sat criss-crossed, took the dried out pile of shrooms, and he waited. In a notebook he scribbled on during the trip in a hellishly childlike scrawl, he wrote, among other small sentiments: GO TO CHURCH WITH DAD, in all caps. 

After being raised by staunchly Catholic parents, he had long turned away from religion. But he felt the urge to turn on church music midway through his trip and was flooded with a simple realization: To connect to his dad, without pushing help or saccharine sympathy, he just needed to sit beside his dad in one of those pews he’d grown to hate as a kid. 

“I’ve been trying to show up for my dad for his cancer, but he hasn’t been receiving my help,” Adler, who hasn’t been to church in 20 years, told The News Station. “But I just need to be his son.”

Mushrooms aren’t New, or All That Novel

Psilocybin was first brought into the periphery of American conscience in the mid 1950’s when it was brought back from Central America by a researcher seeking magic mushrooms. As it gained popularity, psilocybin research bloomed. Then it became associated with the 1970’s anti-Vietnam War movement, which partially fueled President Nixon’s war on ‘drugs,’ and resulted in the federal government halting all notable studies on the substance.  

“The FDA giving psilocybin therapy for depression really pointed out the political hypocrisy of psilocybin being a Schedule 1 drug,” Sam Chapman, campaign manager of Measure 109, told The News Station. “It’s not a medical designation, it’s a political designation.”

But in the last 15 years institutions like The John Hopkins University and the Beckley Institution have ramped up studies (Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley are joining the pack too). A sprinkling of celebrity endorsements and mentions in pop culture helped usher along its resurgence as a substance that ought to be explored. In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration deemed it a “breakthrough therapy” for Major Depressive Disorder.

The results of studies have been nothing short of alarmingly successful.

The seismic shift in support is largely due to the robust studies showing the efficacy of psilocybin, according to Chapman. He says it would be “the golden standard for other states to follow.”

In typical form, just as proponents of the measure are gung-ho about it, so are its naysayers.

Those naysayers include the Oregon Psychiatric Physicians Association, who wrote in a Sep. 28 statement that psilocybin hasn’t been through the appropriate wringer of phased FDA trials to prove its efficacy and safety. 

“Using majority public vote via ballot initiative to bypass professional standards of care for a new medical treatment is dangerous,” the statement reads. “In essence, it will allow prescribing of a controlled substance with effects on the body and the brain to a practitioner with no medical training.”

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies told The News Station it will be several years before Phase 3 trials are completed, but they noted, “Over the course of thousands of years of spiritual use of psilocybin, reports of negative effects are rare.”

“I suspect that many people with terminal diagnoses and the most severe mental health conditions would gladly accept the risks involved today, regardless of OPPA’s worries,” MAPS wrote.

If passed, the state would begin a two-year implementation plan spearheaded by a board appointed by Democratic Governor Kate Brown.

The measure ensures that underrepresented communities, including the indigenous population that’s used psilocybin long before white people co-opted it, see representation on the board. Chapman says they’ve been seeking counsel from BIPOC community members.

Jonathan Frochtzwajg, Public Policy and Grants Manager for the Cascade AIDS Project in Oregon which helps those living with HIV find housing and employment, says that makes him hopeful access worries will be appropriately addressed.

“At the same time, we’re all working within the deeply unjust healthcare system. So we should be watching as OHA moves forward,” Frochtzwajg says.

Their goal, Chasen says, is to prevent psilocybin-assisted therapy from falling into the clutches of capitalism.

“There’s no branding or advertising itself,” Emma Chasen, a strategist for the campaign, told The News Station. “It’s not going the way of free market capitalism the way that cannabis has.”

Are Shrooms the New Weed?

Many Oregon voters have drawn jagged parallels between the legalization of marijuana in 2014 and this measure. But there are major differences that petitioners say are critical to educating the public about how psilocybin-assisted therapy would avoid monopolization, which cannabis has largely fallen prey to: First, the measure does not legalize personal possession.

“When you say we’re legalizing psilocybin, people think we’ll have billboards selling psychedelic mushrooms and dispensaries where people can buy all the psychedelics they want,” Chasen says.

But taking flashy brand advertisement away doesn’t necessarily prevent monopolization on the cultivation side.

Chapman says the board would address monopolization during the 2-year period. But perhaps a greater challenge, if the measure passes, is finding ways to make psilocybin therapy accessible. It’s unlikely insurers would cover the therapy.

“It’s important that it’s not another thing that’s co-opted and all of the magic is removed from it,” Chasen says. “The way to honor the mushroom medicine is to make sure that indigenous people have a voice in how to regulate this, and make sure it’s accessible to all people, not just for wealthy white people.”

Frochtzwajg says 109, if passed, would “express Oregonians’ belief that we should be following science and evidence.” And Measure 110, which the Cascade AIDS Project endorsed alongside Measure 109, is potentially a “game changer”. 

While the nation struggles to contain an avalanche of political, economic, social, and environmental catastrophes, the addiction crisis quietly permeates every American community. But Oregon isn’t done talking about it; they’re just starting to get loud, and they’re already being heard from coast to coast. 

Other states are eagerly watching Oregon – waiting to see if the state can struggle through muddied political waters to push two revolutionary ballot measures through – to calculate whether these measures are feasible across the nation. The slope no longer feels slippery. If anything, it’s starting to feel inevitable. 

Sophie Peel

Sophie Peel

Sophie was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. She attended college in the South and worked for NPR in Georgia as a Couric Radio Fellow before moving back to Oregon and working for Willamette Week. She currently freelances and fills her free time with frequent existential crises.

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