Making history: Will Oregon become the first state to decriminalize the possession of drugs?
Oregon is approaching a milestone in the drug wars: It’s poised to become the first state in the US to decriminalize possession of all drugs, from marijuana and ecstasy to heroin and LSD.
This fall, voters in Oregon will be asked to approve an initiative that would end prison sentences for people who possess drugs for their personal use, and instead offer treatment to all who want it.
Supporters of the ballot initiative, known as IP44, have collected 147,000 signatures, well over the 112,000 signatures need to secure a place on the ballot. Internal polling shows that most Oregonians favor decriminalization, according to Anthony Johnson, a lawyer and one of the chief petitioners for IP44.
“This is a watershed moment,” Johnson told me. “Oregonians — and people nationwide — realize that what we are doing around the drug war isn’t working.”
As Americans take to the streets to protest racial injustice, this is encouraging news because blacks and Latinos are far more likely than whites to be arrested and imprisoned for drug use.
In another sign that taboos around drug use are fading, Oregon voters are being asked to approve a second initiative, called IP34, that would permit licensed practitioners to treat mental illness with therapy assisted by psilocybin, the psychedelic drug that is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
This, too, could be a landmark: It would permit the use of a psychedelic as medicine for the first time since 1970, when psilocybin, LSD, mescaline and cannabis were banned by the US government and classified as drugs with a high abuse potential, no medical benefits and severe safety concerns.
In recent years , though, evidence has been growing that psilocybin is safe when administered in a clinical setting and that the drug, when accompanied by therapy, can alleviate suffering from a range of disorders, including depression, anxiety and addiction to tobacco and alcohol.
IP34 supporters have turned in about 135,000 signatures, more than the 112,000 required. They are seeking another 10,000 to expand their margin of safety.
“We’re super close, but we’re not across the finish line yet,” says Sam Chapman, the campaign manager for IP34. “We’ve got an opportunity to make history here and help a lot of people.”
Big dollars from big donors
Both initiatives have attracted support — and, importantly, financial backing — from drug reformers across the US.
The Drug Policy Alliance and its political arm, Drug Policy Action, have together donated about $1.6m in cash and many hours of staff time to the Yes on IP44 campaign. They haven’t disclosed their donors yet but Drug Policy Alliance has long been supported by George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. The ACLU, Human Rights Watch and the Oregon AFSCME, a public employee union whose members include prison guards, have also joined a broad coalition of groups supporting the measure.
Ellen Flenniken, managing director of development at the Drug Policy Alliance, said the idea behind IP44 is simple: “People who are suffering from problematic drug use need help, not criminalization. Arresting and jailing people for using drugs has failed.”
“We envision a society in which drug policies grounded in science, health, compassion and human rights,” she added.
Drug Policy Action and Anthony Johnson have worked together before. Using many of the same consultants and pollsters, they led the successful 2014 campaign in which a ballot initiative to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana in Oregon was passed by a 56% to 44% vote.
The IP34 campaign to permit the regulated use of psilocybin has raised the bulk of its war chest from the New Approach PAC, a political action committee that has supported marijuana legalization. New Approach has donated nearly $800,000 to the Yes on IP 34 campaign, much of which came from Dr. Bronner’s, the organic soap company. David Bronner, its CEO — that stands for cosmic engagement officer — has pledged to dedicate $1 million on the campaign.
In a long, thoughtful blogpost, David Bronner wrote:
We understand the pain and frustration of many Americans for whom current treatments do not work — for whom pharma drugs provide too little relief and too many undesirable side effects. We yearn for better solutions, and we firmly believe that the integration of psilocybin therapy, to which the FDA recently granted a special “breakthrough designation,” is crucial to healing epidemic rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Compass Pathways, a UK-based company, and the Usona Institute, a nonprofit that does medical research, are seeking FDA approach for psilocybin-assisted therapy. IP34 would leapfrog the FDA process to make the therapy available to those in need in Oregon.
Both IP34 and IP44 are positioning their initiatives as efforts to provide much-needed treatments. IP44 would redirect money that has been raised by taxes on marijuana in Oregon — which topped $102m in FY2019 — to pay for addiction and recovery services to help people get their lives back on track.
Janie Gullickson, one of the chief petitioners for IP44, is a powerful advocate for treatment. “I was addicted to drugs for 22 years without real access to treatment,” she says, in a campaign video. “Treatment was the turning point, that key piece that taught me a new way to live.” Gullickson is now executive director of the Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon. The IP44 campaign says that Oregon ranks last in the US in access to drug addiction treatment for those who need it.
It’s hard to predict what decriminalizing all drug use would mean, since no other US state has gone so far. One county prosecutor in Oregon called it a “terrible idea,” saying it would “lead to increased crime and increased drug use.” But supporters point to evidence from Portugal, which decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001 and has seen decreases in crime and in deaths from drug overdoses, if not in overall drug use.
Stepping away from Oregon, IP44 and IP34 — assuming they become law — are the latest signs of progress in the long-running campaign to end the war on drugs and, more broadly, reduce mass incarceration in the US. Eleven states and DC have, to varying degrees, legalized the marijuana; others (including Oregon) treat drug possession as a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. The cities of Denver, Oakland and Santa Cruz have take steps to decriminalize psilocybin. FDA approval for the medical use of MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy, could come as soon as 2022. Interestingly, efforts to legalize drugs and curb mass incarceration can bring together the left and right, if not always for the same reasons.
And yet. About 1.4 million people in the US were arrested for possession of drugs in 2018; about 600,000 were arrested for possessing marijuana, the Drug Policy Alliance reports. Arrests are not convictions, of course, but they can land poor people in jail — not a place that anyone wants to be these days. And, of course, drug laws are unequally enforced; people of color experience discrimination at every step, from arrest to conviction to probation or parole.
Decriminalization is a meaningful step forward. By email, David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, who has been opposing drug war since the 1990s, told me that voters who act in one state can inspire others to follow. He recalled how California’s Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana in 1996, helped change attitudes and laws elsewhere. “So I view Oregon’s IP 44 as highly significant,” Borden said.
No wonder drug-law reformers everywhere will be watching Oregon in November.