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Groundbreaking Drug Policy Initiatives Pass in Oregon and DC

Groundbreaking Drug Policy Initiatives Pass in Oregon and DC

Three major ballot initiatives were approved by voters on November 3, signaling a significant shift in public attitudes toward drug policy. Oregon decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs including heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines, while a separate Oregon measure legalized psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. In Washington, DC, a sweeping majority of voters said yes to decriminalizing psychedelic plants and fungi. 

Measure 110: Oregon Decriminalizes All Drugs, Funds Expanded Treatment

Measure 110 is a pioneering ballot initiative that decriminalizes the possession of all illegal drugs, making it the first all-drug decriminalization measure in U.S. history. It passed with  59% of the roughly 2 million votes counted so far, according to the Associated Press. 

The measure reclassifies personal possession of schedule I-IV drugs from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class E violation. Those caught carrying a controlled substance will have the option of paying a $100 fine or completing a health assessment within 45 days. The measure does not decriminalize the manufacture or distribution of illegal drugs. 

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Drug Policy Action, the activist arm of the national drug policy reform organization Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), put at least $2.5 million into the campaign.  Also supporting the campaign, with a $500,000 contribution, were Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.

In a November 3 press release, Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) says that the initiative will allocate tax revenue from marijuana sales (over $45 million) towards expanded treatment programs, including “evidence-informed drug treatment, peer support, housing, and harm reduction services.”

A problematic element of the criminal justice system is the way treatment is forced on individuals, DPA’s Director of Media Relations Matt Sutton tells Lucid News. “It’s just criminalization disguised. It’s not effective,” says Sutton. 

In the framework set forth by the measure, an individual caught with a substance would meet with a counselor at an addiction recovery center, complete a health assessment, and then decide for themselves if they want to move forward with further treatment. If they opt not to receive more treatment, they don’t have to pay the fine, says Sutton. 

The expanded treatment options funded by Measure 110 are more holistic than traditional methods, according to Sutton, in that they address the wider scope of an individual’s problems, and how they may be contributing to their drug use. 

“The idea of treatment has to be more about providing care for each individual. It’s hard to ask people to get sober if they don’t have a roof over their heads,” says Sutton, suggesting that housing assistance is one avenue for providing aid. 

“We expect there will be a cascade of other efforts around the country,” says Sutton. “Not just decriminalizing drugs, but providing access to health services, harm reduction, employment and housing.”

Sutton attributes much of 110’s success to the way 2020 brought into stark relief the racism embedded in our criminal justice system, and how interconnected it is with the war on drugs. 

“By removing drug possession as an arrestable offense, we are removing so many of those harmful interactions,” says Sutton, referring to the deadly police encounters with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In those situations, “drugs gave the police a reason to have that interaction, and a justification for their actions.” 

What does this measure mean for the state of Oregon? Ifetayo Harvey, DPA’s marketing coordinator, envisions that “there will be less people in jail, less stigma around drug use, and racial disparities in arrests will plummet.” 

Harvey says DPA is developing a framework based on the Oregon initiative for decriminalization on a federal level, and has received interest from federal legislators. 

Measure 109: Oregon Legalizes Psilocybin Therapy 

Oregon voters also approved the legalization of psilocybin-assisted therapy. Measure 109 received support from 55.8% of the voters, according to The New York Times. It will provide adults with access to psilocybin in a medically supervised environment. 

The measure calls for the Oregon Health Authority to be responsible for developing a psilocybin-assisted therapy program and establishing regulations around who can facilitate sessions, professional codes of conduct, and dosing standards. 

Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that psilocybin will only be available through an “extensive, three-session therapy system located in the state-licensed clinic.” It will not be available for purchase in-stores. 

The measure is co-sponsored by Portland-based therapists Tom and Sheri Eckert, founders of the Oregon Psilocybin Society

Measure 109’s campaign manager Sam Chapman tells OPB that support was stronger than expected, saying “It’s very clear that creating new options for people who are struggling with depression, anxiety and addiction is not a partisan issue. Suffering is not a partisan issue.” 

The measure’s largest contributor was New Approach PAC, a drug-policy reform organization, which directed over $3.3 million towards the initiative. 

“Oregon’s decision to legalize psilocybin therapy provides a template for other states to follow,” New Approach PAC’s founder and director Graham Boyd says. “By ensuring licensed, trained guides, the measure both increases access and promotes safety. I do expect this model to be adopted by other states in future years.” 

Organizers of the measure received more than $2 million dollars from the soap company Dr. Bronner’s, where Boyd is the political director. 

Initiative 81: Washington DC Decriminalizes Plant Medicines 

A large majority of Washington DC voters have said yes to decriminalizing natural plant medicines – including magic mushrooms, ibogaine, DMT, mescaline, and peyote – making possession and usage of plant psychedelics the lowest enforcement priority for the Metropolitan Police Department. Initiative 81 passed with 76% of the vote, according to The New York Times. 

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The campaign was spearheaded by Decriminalize Nature DC. 

Washington, DC is the fourth city to decriminalize naturally occurring psychedelics, following in the footsteps of Oakland, Ann Arbor, and Denver, though the previous cities initiated the policy change through City Council resolutions . 

The measure will go into effect after a 30 day review period, “during which time federal lawmakers have the opportunity to block the reform, as they once did with a voter-approved medical cannabis ballot initiative,” reports Marijuana Moment

Presenting the measure in a way that’s accessible to all kinds of voters played a large role in the measure’s success, says Decriminalize Nature D.C. Chairwoman Melissa Lavasani, whose own story as a mother of two suffering from depression and healing with magic mushrooms connected with voters. 

“My story is relatable to so many people,” says Lavasani. “For us to be successful to DC voters, it needed to be presented in a certain way. When you’re talking about your struggle and what you had to go through, you’re being honest, and speaking with integrity.”

While there may be some stigma around people who use psychedelics, Lavasani says the measure’s passing proves there’s a place for this legislation all over the nation. “We need to be spreading the word across the country.” 

Despite the new measure, people caught carrying plant medicines can still be penalized. “The initiative doesn’t legalize use, it just moves offenses to the lowest priority,” says Lavasani. Decriminalize DC is looking to implement a worker’s protection bill, which would help people who do get caught carrying a substance from facing harsh penalties. 

“What can the City Council do to prevent someone who gets caught from losing their job, housing, or children? How can we protect people that are trying to heal themselves?” says Lavasani. 

Lavasani anticipates that the discussion around decriminalizing plant medicines will eventually be brought again to lawmakers who have the power to change federal drug laws. “Being the nation’s capital, this is real. At some point, our federal government is going to have to adapt federal laws to support this.” 

While Initiative 81 provides some degree of protection for those who take plant medicines, some believe it leaves out a group of arguably more vulnerable drug users. 

“Rates of arrest for plant medicine have historically been low, even before the passage of decriminalization policies,” says Vincent Rado, founder of the DC Psychedelic Society. “Users of many other drugs have not had these same luxuries, unfortunately. Users of opiates, cocaine, and amphetamines have historically faced higher rates of arrest, as well as risk of infection from IV use or overdose from synthetic drugs of unknown purity.” 

From 2010 to 2019, possession of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana accounted for the majority of drug-related arrests made in the U.S.

“We must protect all people who use drugs, regardless of substance, set, or setting,” says Rado. “If we can adopt policy that protects and respects users of all drugs with the same enthusiasm with which we have passed Initiative 81, then we are making some serious progress.”

Image: Nicki Adams using modified photos by Motorbase, Zoe Helene, Apollo, Dav Hir, Awkipuma, Depositphotos, and Caleb Brown (Joust)

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