• November 25, 2020

Oregon Decriminalizes Most Hard Drugs; it’s all About Mental Health

 Oregon  Decriminalizes Most Hard Drugs; it’s all About Mental Health

Original art by Lizzy Oakley Photography

PORTLAND, Ore. – Oregon paved the way for marijuana legalization to become the norm in red and blue states alike, and this election, voters there may have started a new national trend. They voted to decriminalize possession of all drugs under small amounts, while also passing a separate ballot measure to allow the use of psilocybin, or ‘magic mushrooms,’ in therapeutic settings.

But these measures aren’t intended to make Oregon the new Amsterdam. The two trailblazing drug measures on this year’s ballot – measures 109 and 110 – were aimed at addressing the nation’s often overlapping addiction and mental health crises.  

Both measures are the first of their kind for any state (though technically DC voters approved a similar psilocybin measure earlier in the evening), and both introduce a radically different approach to drug addiction and mental health care than what the nation’s political class has utterly failed to do so far.

MEASURE 110 

Measure 110 decriminalizes possession of most hard drugs under small amounts, and it instead seeks to reroute people to centers where they can receive addiction assessments and mentorship, while also receiving advice on where to go for treatment services, if they so choose.

Matt Sutton of the Drug Policy Alliance, which helped craft the measure over the past two years, says the victory feels “surreal” and that when they began campaigning two years ago, “it still seemed very much like a long shot.” 

“We expect there will be a cascade of other states following suit,” Sutton says. “We’ve spent too long and too much money trying to treat people with criminalization and it doesn’t work. There isn’t anything radical about this. We want to think we’re radical, but it really isn’t. It’s public health, pure and simple.”

The measure also funnels any Oregon’s tax revenue from its recreational marijuana marketplace above $45 million towards the creation of these centers, taking away a sizable amount of money given to state and county law enforcement. 

Now, it’s on to the nitty gritty, and to be frank, mayhem, of implementing a new framework that drastically changes law enforcement and the court’s role in possession of hard drugs. With this measure, law enforcement is limited to doling out $100 tickets for possession, which can be waived if they attend the recovery centers. Still, supporters of the measure say it will decrease the gaping racial disparities in possession arrests and charges.

“Oregon has shown that it is time to move away from harsh drug war punishments and more toward a more human approach to treating drug use and addiction,” Anthony Johnson, chief petitioner of the measure, tells The News Station. “It will also show the rest of the country to end these harmful and racist policies.” 

Lt. Richard Goerling (ret.) of the  Law Enforcement Action Partnership says he’s relieved Oregonians can “re-imagine the role of the criminal justice system, and the role of police officers in our streets, and subsequently the role of our prosecutors, courts and jails.”

The Measure 110 campaign was ravaged by allegations from Oregon Recovers – an advocacy coalition for addicts – that the ballot measure promulgated false promises of treatment services.

In its email blasts, the ‘No on 110’ campaign emphasized what they call “misinformation” that it would create robust treatment, and they alleged the campaign would take away funding from education and current recovery programs and then pool it into creating recovery centers that don’t provide treatment beds.

The ‘No’ campaign also harped on the fact that eliminating the court system as a mediator between possession and treatment meant less people re-routed to treatment. And they painted the measure as one that puts kids at higher risk of drug use if not routed to courts.

But that’s all irrelevant now, because the measure passed.

“For people who are in a place of addiction and have small amounts of personal use drugs, maybe there’s a better process than the criminal justice process. Because that’s not working out so well,” Goerling says. “We never know for sure. Anything we could do like this could be a grand failure, but we’re bold enough to try it.”

Measure 109 

Measure 109 legalizes psilocybin-assisted therapy in hyper-controlled settings. Studies out of prominent research institutions (Johns Hopkins University and Berkeley are now all in, to name just a few) have shown astounding results in the past 15 years in using psilocybin to treat Major Depressive Disorder.

The campaign manager for that measure, Sam Chapman, was elated when The News Station caught up with him. Their team’s “cautious optimism was understated,” he says. “More people have been with us than we’ve ever known.” 

“More people understand that suffering is not a partisan issue,” Chapman tells The News Station. “Oregonians suffering from depression and anxiety will have a new option for hope. Tonight, we’ll celebrate. Tomorrow, we turn back to the work ahead of us.”

A framework for the therapy will be established over the next two years by a board appointed by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D). Seats on that panel will be reserved for indigenous leaders who are experienced with plant medicine. 

Camden McCarthy turned to mushrooms three years ago after a lifetime of being prescribed a smorgasbord of anti-depression medications that he says “alter us beyond our understanding.” 

“Before trying shrooms, I never had a feeling of self love and connectedness within things that were greater than me. It helped bring that into sight and showed me that it was something that is achievable,” McCarthy tells The News Station.

The challenge? Keeping it from being another co-opted rich white people thing. Access issues are likely to plague the measure, as insurers will likely not cover this therapy anytime soon, though local proponents are eager to see where this first step leads in the coming years. So are those watching from a distance.

“It would be our hope that other states would join in and change would eventually occur at the national level,” Amber Capone, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions based out of Southern California, tells The News Station. “This is a potential first step in veterans being able to heal within the borders of the nation they’ve chosen to defend. We’ve got to have better solutions for veteran healthcare.”

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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