Day 6

Oregon's historic move to decriminalize drug possession will save lives, says advocate

Measure 110, a state-wide initiative in Oregon, will decriminalize drugs — including opioids, cocaine and heroin — and redirect funds to addiction treatment programs. Lead campaigner Haven Wheelock says the win shifts addictions from a criminal justice to public health model.

A ballot measure to decriminalize drugs and redirect funds to addictions treatment programs passed Tuesday

Election worker Kristen Mun from Portland empties ballots from a ballot box on Nov. 3, 2020 in Portland, Ore. The measure to decriminalize illicit drugs was included on the ballot as part of Tuesday's presidential election. (Paula Bronstein/The Associated Press)

For Bobby Byrd, who was convicted of a minor drug charge more than two-and-a-half decades ago in Oregon, the passing of Measure 110 comes as a relief.

The historic state-wide initiative, which was included on the ballot during Tuesday's presidential election, will decriminalize drugs — including opioids, cocaine and heroin — and redirect funds to addiction treatment programs.

The effort, advocates say, aims to replace a criminal justice approach to drug use with a public health-focused model.

"If this had been around 30 years ago, who knows what my life could be right now?" Byrd told Day 6. He says that because of his conviction, he has been denied housing and work.

"I feel like it's going to help thousands and thousands of people."

WATCH | Bobby Byrd shares his story as part of the Vote Yes on Measure 110 campaign

Campaigners, including Byrd, have been pushing for the change for years as part of an effort to end the so-called war on drugs, which they say disproportionately affects people of colour like Byrd, who is Black.

While the initiative doesn't legalize illicit drugs, it does end criminal penalties — including incarceration — for those caught carrying small amounts. Those individuals then have the option of paying a $100 fine or enrolling in an addiction treatment program.

"We're at a time when people are really seeing that a new approach is needed if we are going to save lives and change and help people heal from their substance use," said Haven Wheelock, a lead campaigner for the initiative and coordinator for a syringe exchange program in Portland, Ore., in an interview with Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"For me, this is about destigmatizing drugs and creating a better, safer world and a better, safer system of care for folks who are struggling with addiction."

'A landmark declaration'

Drug Policy Action, a nonprofit advocacy group, spearheaded the Oregon effort. Its executive director Kassandra Frederique called the victory a "dramatic move."

"What Oregonians did on Tuesday really was a landmark declaration to say that the time has finally come to stop criminalizing people who use drugs, no matter the type," Frederique told Day 6.

Frederique says that one in 10 Oregon residents lives with a drug addiction. In 2018, Gov. Kate Brown declared addiction and substance abuse a public health crisis in an effort to raise awareness of, and resources for the problem.

Kassandra Frederique is the executive director of Drug Action Policy. (Drug Action Policy)

The initiative has its critics, however. Oregon Recovers, a group that advocates for greater access to addiction recovery supports, has challenged the initiative despite supporting decriminalization. 

"Their goal is to move people out of the criminal justice system into the health-care system. But the health-care system isn't ready to receive them," said Mike Marshall, executive director of Oregon Recovers, in an interview with Oregon's KATU News.

Others suggest that criminalization is needed in order to incentivize people into treatment — a carrot-and-stick approach.

"We believe that aspect is not necessary and actually impedes people from getting the carrot," countered Frederique.

Measure 110 advocates say it will redirect tax revenue from the sale of recreational marijuana, which was legal in the state before last week's election, toward establishing new addictions programs.

"I will not say this measure is going to cure addiction," said Wheelock. "But it's going to definitely move us a big step forward."

"This is the largest investment in addiction recovery supports that our state has ever seen. And is it perfect? No, of course not. And will we have to keep working at it? Yeah."

Move follows Portugal's efforts

While Oregon is the first jurisdiction in the United States to decriminalize all illicit drugs, it's not the first in the world. In 2001, the government of Portugal made a similar move.

Research cited by the New York Times suggests that following decriminalization in that country, people in treatment for addictions rose and opioid overdoses fell. However, experimentation with illicit drugs also increased, but didn't result in ongoing use.

"What they saw was, really, by changing the narrative around this, that people's health improved and communities became safer," said Wheelock. "I can't see how we can deny evidence from other places in the world that this could also work in our communities here."

Haven Wheelock, a lead campaigner for Yes on Measure 110, during the campaign's kick off. (Yes on Measure 110 campaign)

Frederique says that she expects the Oregon decision will ignite other states — and the federal government — to consider similar changes.

"We've already started the conversation in Washington, D.C., about what it would take to decriminalize drugs at the federal level, and there are people in Congress that are interested and engaged in conversation," she said.

Byrd, who has not used drugs since 1993, says that Measure 110 is important as it "does not discriminate" and offers residents of Oregon an equal playing field. "Anyone can get treatment," he said.

He's also optimistic that its ripple effect will resonate across the country.

"I hope that what we've accomplished here with Measure 110 will grow major league across the United States … because I don't want the same thing that happened to me to happen to other people."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Annie Bender.