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This Advocacy Group Helped Oregon Make History on Drug Decriminalization

We spoke with Lindsay LaSalle, Managing Director of Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance, about how Measure 110 in Oregon will decrease drug law enforcement and increase life-saving services.

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On Election Day, voters in Oregon made it the first state in the country to decriminalize the possession and use of drugs such as heroine, cocaine, and other illegal drugs, as well as, expand access to services like health assessments, addiction treatment, harm reduction for people with addiction disorders through the reallocation of cannabis tax money. Behind Measure 110’s success was a powerful campaign driven by a coalition of citizens, drug advocacy organizations, and public health officials. At the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Managing Director of Policy Lindsay LaSalle and her colleagues helped draft the ballot initiative, which does away with damaging drug law enforcement and uses the cost savings to fund life-saving public health and addiction treatment services for people with substance use disorder. We spoke to LaSalle about how DPA worked to get this historic measure passed. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

What is Oregon Measure 110 and what will it do?

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Lindsay LaSalle

First and foremost, Measure 110 eliminates criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs and drug use. It simultaneously increases access to health and harm reduction services, including housing and substance use disorder treatment, and it establishes addiction recovery services throughout the state. At its core, it's really dismantling the current system of punishment for drug use and building a compassionate, supportive, non-coercive system of care to address drug use in the state.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

Why is it important to decriminalize drug use?

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Lindsay LaSalle

It's important to decriminalize drug use for a number of reasons. Drug use is the primary driver of law enforcement involvement in communities of color. Racial disparities go beyond arrests — you see disparities in who gets prosecuted and how long they’re sentenced. And the collateral consequences of an arrest are severe, especially for communities of color. You can lose your employment, lose custody of your children, and lose access to effective substance use disorder treatments like methadone and buprenorphine. A conviction can also disqualify you from federal benefits, including food stamps, public housing, and financial aid for higher education.

That’s one of the most important harms that's reduced by decriminalization. Another is that so many of our resources are put into enforcing drug laws that our system of care to address the root causes of addiction is left underfunded. What this measure does is divest from those enforcement strategies and invest in an evidence-based system of care that people can access readily and that's low-threshold.

A third benefit is that when you remove the label of criminal, you simultaneously remove a lot of stigma; people who are otherwise disinclined to seek help — often because they're worried about criminal penalties — come out of the shadows to get the care they deserve.

In Oregon, a racial impact analysis by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission showed that the passage of Measure 110 would reduce drug possession convictions of Black and indigenous Oregonians by 94 percent and decrease racial disparities in drug arrests by 95 percent. It has concrete implications in terms of racial disparities.

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Arnold Ventures

Measure 110 is expected to save costs. Where will those cost savings come from and how will they be reinvested?

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Lindsay LaSalle

The cost savings are attributable to not arresting, prosecuting, or incarcerating people. That's estimated at between $36 million and $59 million per year, according to a study from ECONorthwest, all of which will go to fund health and harm reduction services.

It costs $23,000 to $35,000 per year to process someone in a misdemeanor drug case. That's certainly more money than the $9,000 per year it typically costs to provide substance use disorder treatment. These costs are way out of whack in relation to the societal benefits they provide, which is really a net negative because of all of the collateral consequences.

Another revenue stream is marijuana tax revenue, which is projected to be over $100 million per year. The new savings and revenue are going to fund two things. One is expanding capacity to conduct screenings, identify people’s needs, and offer intensive case management. The second is building up additional access to care for substance use disorder, treatment, housing, harm reduction, and peer recovery and support services. This funding will come in the form of grants to community-based organizations throughout Oregon.

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Arnold Ventures

What has Drug Policy Alliance’s role been in advocating for this?

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Lindsay LaSalle

DPA has been advocating to remove criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs for over a decade. We convened a number of partners and organizations a few years ago to come together, along with international experts, to conceive of what a decriminalization model would look like in the U.S.

In 2017, we published a report called It's Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession. At the same time, we were exploring where it might be possible to move reform forward in the U.S. Oregon really stood out. We have worked there for two decades on a host of drug policy and criminal justice reforms, including medical marijuana legalization, adult use marijuana legalization, defelonizing all drugs, and civil asset forfeiture reform. To draft Measure 110, we worked with our partners in the state and built a broad coalition of over 130 organizational endorsers and countless individuals — parents, health care professionals, teachers, folks in the recovery community, members of the criminal legal system, treatment providers, and harm reduction providers. We continued to partner with them throughout the campaign to realize this victory on Tuesday.

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Arnold Ventures

Critics say decriminalization will incentivize drug use. How do you respond to those concerns?

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Lindsay LaSalle

Although it appears novel in the U.S., there are many other countries that have implemented similar decriminalization policies, and in all cases they've seen stable drug use trends. In other words, people are not using drugs more simply because they are decriminalized, and people are not flocking to the jurisdictions in which decriminalization reforms have gone into effect.

On the flip side, those countries have seen overdose deaths and infectious diseases decline significantly, and there's also been an increase in people voluntarily accessing treatment, harm reduction, and other health services. We have very strong evidence behind us that helped inform the drafting of Measure 110. We also looked to jurisdictions within the U.S. for what has worked and what hasn't. Marijuana has been decriminalized in a number of states. And Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) is really de facto decriminalization. If people are routed to LEAD, there are no criminal consequences, and it's based on a harm reduction model. We feel confident that the same type of efficacy we've seen in other jurisdictions will prove itself out in Oregon.

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Arnold Ventures

On the other side, some critics worry that Measure 110 still includes a police response to drug use and carries a citation with a $100 fine. What do you say to those who think the measure doesn’t go far enough?

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Lindsay LaSalle

This is a stepping stone and not the end goal. It’s an opportunity to open up the dialogue in a profound way that hasn't occurred in decades, because it addresses all drugs. But creating policy through ballot measures does have its limitations, because you’re taking it directly to the people, and there are constraints around political viability.

In this measure, there is still an initial point of contact with police, but we removed their discretion entirely. It’s unlike LEAD, where police either divert a person to the program or arrest them. Here, if they're under the threshold amount, they get a citation and that’s it. The fine can be waived by completing a low-threshold screening, and the screening does not make any additional requirements on the person. There's no level of coercion, and you're offering a point of care.

One thing that we will be building on during the next legislative session is expanding the criminal legal provisions to include retroactivity and expungement, which this measure doesn't cover. That’s part of an intentional plan to build upon what Measure 110 lays out.

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Arnold Ventures

Measure 110 was modeled in part on a similar policy in Portugal. What was Portugal's experience with decriminalization, and what inspiration did this measure take from it?

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Lindsay LaSalle

The biggest inspiration was to center health and harm reduction, but it differs in the details. For instance, Portugal set up “dissuasion commissions,” which require that after a person is cited they appear before a commission that has discretion over how the case process and especially whether a person is ordered to complete substance use disorder treatments, or pay a fine. There’s a lot more discretion. In Oregon, discretion is pretty limited. There’s a simple citation with a fine or the completion of a screening, and then we provide access to points to care if people want it.

We had to differ from Portugal, because we're just not socially similar. For one thing, we don't have universal access to health care coverage. Portugal has a lot more options at its disposal because they can easily send someone to services and know that they'll be received. That’s why it was important for us, in the absence of that same social safety net and health care infrastructure, to create an immediate point of care with a provider or with a peer.

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Arnold Ventures

Looking forward, what would success look like in Oregon?

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Lindsay LaSalle

Success initially is that the legislature and the regulatory agencies in Oregon implement the measure according to the will and intent of the voters, which means that they don’t change the funding allocations or the system that was created.

Over the long term, it's ensuring that the provisions that eliminate criminal penalties are in fact being followed through on, and that there is not a simultaneous increase in arrests for other reasons — loitering, nuisance, that type of thing. We're going to have to play a watchdog role.

In terms of health care provision, it’s about ensuring that connection to care. Not everyone is going to want or need a pathway to recovery, but we want to ensure that they have an access point to address their broader needs — housing, childcare, or otherwise — without judgment, without coercion.

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Arnold Ventures

Do you think Measure 110 can form a model policy for other jurisdictions across the United States?

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Lindsay LaSalle

Yes. What it indicates is that the public is ready to embrace new interventions that reduce the role of law enforcement and shift our priorities toward health-based outcomes. We and our allies are intent on building upon it. We have partnered with the ACLU in Washington State to explore the viability of moving an initiative there. We're also exploring the possibility of legislative initiatives and campaigns in California.

In bigger states, the criminal legal impacts are really profound. And there’s a host of other states with elected officials who are interested in potentially moving similar legislation, including Maine and Vermont. It might look different depending on the jurisdiction. But I think what Oregon does is open up conversations.