PORTLAND, Ore. — The epiphany came in 2009, as Hubert Matthews prepared to spend another night on Portland’s streets.
For two decades he had been using drugs, then committing crimes to get more. He wanted out, but he saw no easy escape. His frequent use made him an easy target for the police, leaving him a homeless, middle-aged man trapped by his addiction and the laws he broke to feed it.
“I had to take a hard look at myself and say ‘I’m 47 years old and I don’t have anything going. I’m not a kingpin. I don’t have a job. I’m just a dope fiend,’” Matthews said. “I was getting arrested a lot for possession and little stuff over and over again to where my criminal record caused me to not be able to get a job, to not be able to get an apartment.”
Matthews, who is now a recovering addict and a drug abuse counselor, believes others will have an easier path after Oregon voters approved a controversial ballot measure decriminalizing possession of small amounts of so-called hard drugs, including cocaine, heroin, oxycodone, and methamphetamines. Measure 110 also applies marijuana sales taxes toward payments for drug addiction treatment. Marijuana has been legal in Oregon since 2015.
Oregon also joined the District of Columbia in decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms.
Four other states — New Jersey, Arizona, Montana, and South Dakota — voted on Tuesday to legalize recreational marijuana, and Mississippi legalized cannabis for medical use. In total, nearly a third of the states have now eased the criminal consequences of marijuana use, though federal law still prohibits it.
Nearly 40 years after the start of the nation’s War on Drugs, Oregon’s upvote puts it at the forefront of shifting American attitudes about what communities should do about drug abuse. Proponents of decriminalization say it offers a remedy to a costly campaign that has done little improve society but has wreaked havoc on minority communities. An Oregon study showed that Black and Native American people were more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than White people, creating a record that follows low-level drug users around for the rest of their lives.
Oregon’s measure, which passed with almost 60 percent support, goes further than other states that have increasingly eased restrictions on drug use. Measure 110 decriminalizes hard drugs often associated with crippling addiction and social decay.
In favoring rehabilitation over-incarceration, proponents say, the measure prevents recovering drug users from being stigmatized by employers, lenders, and landlords for years — and gives them the ability to pull themselves out of a cycle of drug-related criminality.
“We have been criminalizing people for at least 50 years, and what we know is that it hasn’t gotten us any closer to having our loved ones get the care that they need at the scale that it requires,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance, which spent more than $4 million backing the Oregon measure. “Criminalization is not a deterrent to use, and it’s not a humane approach. This is about recognizing that we need to support people.”
Under the measure, people who possess larger quantities of illicit drugs could still face misdemeanor charges, and felony charges would apply to people who are alleged to possess enough drugs to sell.
Frederique said she hopes Oregon becomes a model for “a cascade of change in other places in the country.”
Marijuana advocates said they hope the wider support for legalization seen on Tuesday will put pressure on Congress to change federal marijuana laws.
“It comes down to the fact that marijuana prohibition has been an abject failure,” said Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project. “If you’re not going to punish people harshly for marijuana, then you might as well legalize it to control it and regulate and use revenue for important public services.”
But critics have cast Oregon's measure as a hasty sprint toward decriminalization that can strip communities of tools to compel addicts into rehabilitation and can sugarcoat the deadly consequences of hard drugs for both people and municipalities.
Kevin Sabet, the founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a three-time White House Office of National Drug Control Policy adviser, called the ballot measure “a deliberate first step to legalize all drugs — heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine.”
The threat of criminal prosecution can be a powerful incentive for people to seek treatment, he said. Likewise, legalization can empower people to abuse drugs without fearing legal jeopardy.
“For a lot of people, they stop drinking once they got a DUI, and they realized what they were doing was wrong,” Sabet said. “I think a lot of people have gotten help through drug courts. For a lot of people, the consequences are important. And I think we can find a way to marry the criminal justice and public health systems.”
Even other proponents of decriminalizing drug addiction warn that Oregon’s ballot measure tears down a nuanced system of getting people addiction treatment, replacing it with what they call a blunt instrument. Opponents of the measure said what passed Tuesday doesn’t address long-standing issues surrounding access to treatment.
Mike Marshall, co-founder, and director of Oregon Recovers, said the measure threatens to replace addiction treatment infrastructure with a system that compels people to get assessments, but not actual treatment. He accused Measure 110’s marketing campaign of misleading Oregonians about weakened safeguards with regard to teenage drug use.
“The net effect of it is to take away a pathway to treatment to a bunch of people in Oregon,” Marshall said, noting it was a way for ballot supporters to win decriminalization.
“Decriminalization of addiction is hugely important, but how you do it is equally important. Locking people up because they’re addicted to substances is not a place you want to go to, but in the moment it’s interrupting their use and it’s getting them a pathway to treatment.”
The initiative has had high-powered backers. In addition to the Drug Policy Alliance’s spending, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, gave $500,000, according to The Oregonian. The Oregon Academy of Family Physicians, Oregon Nurses Association, and the Oregon chapter of the American College of Physicians endorsed Measure 110, and singer John Legend also boosted its profile when he expressed his support on Twitter.
The editorial board of the Oregonian, the state's largest newspaper, also endorsed the measure, saying the criminal justice system’s efforts to force people with addictions into treatment is “not showing the widespread success that this state needs.”
Matthews, who appeared in a commercial for Measure 110, said the government did little to compel him into the treatment during the many times he cycled through the jail in Portland. Instead, a punitive criminal justice system saddled him with a record that made it harder for him to reintegrate into society after he made up his mind to seek treatment.
“What it does is it takes the criminal element out of it,” he said of the measure. “That’s what does more harm. That’s what creates more barriers. If I didn’t catch those cases back in the day, things would have been different after I got clean. It took seven years for a lot of that to fall off. The only job I could get is day labor. Temp jobs. The dirty grimy jobs that pay anything but rent.”
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