Two alternative ballot measures would recriminalize hard drugs in Oregon, but the organizing group’s founder Max Williams says he hopes the Legislature comes up with a better alternative.
For former Oregon Department of Corrections director and Oregon Community Foundation CEO Max Williams, fixing Oregon’s Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act through a ballot measure is the least best option.
The former Republican state legislator says he would prefer lawmakers address what he sees as “system deficiencies” in the state’s 2020 drug decriminalization Measure 110 during a legislative session.
In a conversation with Oregon Business, Williams pointed to Washington state as a successful example. In May, the state legislature passed SB 5536, which made drug possession and use criminal misdemeanors; it also allocates millions more in funding for addiction treatment and recovery services.
But Williams says that given the often-unpredictable results of Oregon legislative sessions, his organization — called the Coalition to Fix and Improve Measure 110 — has filed two voter initiatives with filed with the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office to act as a backstop.
He says when he initially met with allies wanting to amend 110, there was talk of repealing the measure altogether. He says the part of the measure that works — using cannabis taxes to fund recovery and treatment efforts — will stay intact, and should be expanded to include funding from other sources. But he says decriminalizing hard drugs takes away the state’s method of handling drug-addicted individuals who are unable and/or unwilling to get help on their own.
The campaign already has $700,000 raised from high-profile donors like Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle, Nike founder Phil Knight and real estate developer Jordan Schnitzer.
Williams says if the state has the ability to arrest and detain individuals for drug possession, that also means it can mandate treatment earlier on in a person’s addiction cycle. He says the ability to mandate treatment is an important tool to help in addiction recovery and combat the state’s ongoing fentanyl crisis. The drug, which Oregon authorities seized 2 million doses of in 2022, has surpassed methamphetamine as the most frequent cause of drug overdosing deaths in the state – which increased 41% last year.
“We are just sort of letting people stay in that space where they will eventually suffer an overdose, which is a tragedy for them and their families, or they commit a crime serious enough where they get a felony and have to do a longer jail or potential prison sentence and these tools can’t help them,” Williams tells OB. “We should intervene in these earlier steps of possession and use so that we can help move people in the right direction before they commit the more serious crimes. That’s not how people necessarily want to talk about it, but from my time in the Department of Corrections, for lots of people I worked with, a series of events led them into the system, and it was in the system where they got an opportunity to get cleaned up and make decisions about change.”
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 160 participants “under various levels of criminal justice supervision” in an outpatient substance abuse treatment program. Researchers that while those who were referred by court mandate demonstrated less motivation at entry, but were more likely to complete the six-month treatment program than those who entered it voluntarily.
Under Measure 110, possession of hard drugs remains illegal, but possession of small quantities of certain drugs is a civil violation comparable to a traffic ticket. Police can hand out $100 citations for drug users, that come with a card referring to an addiction treatment hotline; those who call the hotline can have the $100 fee waived. In May 2017, 1,483 people were arrested on drug possession charges in Oregon. In May 2022, that number declined to 176.
The program has had lackluster results; cited individuals rarely follow up for treatment on the hotline, or show up in court.
In June the Oregon legislature passed a bill that criminalizes possession of small quantities of fentanyl, rolling back part of 110.
Both versions of the measure the coalition is considering re-criminalize possession of lethal drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine and mandate treatment for “drug-dependent persons” convicted of or charged with drug possession or certain misdemeanor property crimes. They also create a discharge diversion procedure for offenders who meet very specific criteria: to qualify for diversion, a defendant must have no other criminal charges pending, have not been convicted of drug manufacture or delivery within the last five years, have not have taken part in a drunk driving or drug diversion program within the last year, have not taken part in a drug diversion program or have been on probation for a drug misdemeanor charge within the last five years, and must not have a criminal history that includes two person-related felonies. They also establish record expungement procedures for offenders who successfully complete rehabilitation. Both measures also criminalize use of controlled substances in public.
One version of the measure stops there, while the other also stiffens penalties for dealing and manufacturing drugs, and transfers Measure 110’s grant program, funded by cannabis taxes and currently standing at $302 million from the Oregon Health Authority to Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission and directs the ADCP to fund evidence-based prevention programs.
“We think that the Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission has been an underutilized resource,” Williams says. “It doesn’t make sense to have one commission with a strategic plan about our long-term addiction needs in Oregon over here, and a separate group of people who are making decisions about how these important and critical resources are being managed as they go out to community over there. We think that there’s an opportunity to merge both of these things in one place. The governor directly appoints the members of the Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission, so this puts this squarely in the governor’s basket to pick to choose people who can serve on ADPC who have a mix of backgrounds and experience necessary.”
Willams says his organization prefers the lengthier bill, but which bill will make it to ballot depends on the titling process by the Attorney General’s office. He says he has been in contact with Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland) about a potential legislative fix. Nosse confirmed he had spoken with Williams, and that he assumes and hopes they will talk more. He says he discussed both versions of the bill with Williams, and that the process of addressing Measure 110’s consequences is “an evolving thing.”
“Max [Williams] is very engaging and being a former legislator and corrections department head and a lawyer, he knows a lot about this topic. My hope is that he and his clients will work with us legislators to figure all this out as there are likely unintended consequences for what he and his funders want to accomplish,” Nosse told OB over email. “My hope is the legislative process will surface all that, and help bring him along to a series of solutions to the challenges our state is facing because of P2P, Meth, and Fentanyl.”
According to Oregon Health and Science University and the ADPC, Oregon currently has a 49% capacity gap of treatment services, and the state ranks 50th in the nation for access to addiction treatment. According to the Oregon Health Authority, approximately 8,400 people have received treatment from services funded by Measure 110.
An August poll found slightly more than half of Oregonians support of a repeal of Measure 110, with more than 64% supporting repealing parts of the law. Lawmakers across the state have already begun reacting to the potential shortcomings of the measure. In October, state legislators will go on a fact-finding mission to Portugal, which decriminalized drugs in 2000, to look for ways to curb addiction.
Williams is skeptical as to whether the Portugal trip will yield any substantial lessons for Oregon legislators. He says the addiction support infrastructure is already built in Portugal, that the money from Oregon’s cannabis tax is still insufficient to treat the state’s addiction problems, and that more funding will have to be found by state departments and the state legislature, especially as the state’s cannabis industry contracts.
“Even with even with those dollars, there’s insufficient infrastructure. It’s not enough to cover it and so if you’re serious about addressing the ravages of drugs and addiction in the state, you’re going to have to make more of an investment,” says Williams, who adds that he is hoping the legislature will address the issues with before either of his group’s measures make it to the ballot. “It’s my hope that they will take this up. I think we have the potential to get a better product through that process. But again, forecasting the legislature has become increasingly difficult over the last 20 years and we just don’t feel like we just sort of stand by and take our chances.”