Oregon Decriminalizes Hard Drug Possession, While Five States Pass Marijuana Ballot Measures

Four states legalized recreational marijuana on Tuesday.

Four states legalized recreational marijuana on Tuesday. Shutterstock


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Measures to decriminalize drugs like magic mushrooms also racked up big wins on election night.

Drug-related ballot measures succeeded across the country on Tuesday, many of them passing by large margins on a night otherwise defined by races that are still too close to call. 

The most dramatic shift in drug policies came with the passage of Oregon’s Measure 110, a sweeping proposal that will decriminalize all drugs starting on February 1, 2021. The state will eliminate criminal penalties, including prison time, for personal possession of small amounts of drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. 

Voters in four states that lean conservative also chose to legalize recreational marijuana and, for the first time, voters in one state concurrently legalized recreational and medical marijuana. Organizers of campaigns for other drugs like magic mushrooms also claimed victory.

With Oregon’s decriminalization measure, the drugs aren’t being made legal, so there won’t be an official market for them as there is for marijuana in the state. Those caught with drugs will have the option to pay a $100 fine or complete a health assessment, including a substance use disorder screening, at an addiction recovery center. The model is based in part on systems already in place in countries that have decriminalized drugs, like Portugal and Switzerland.

The measure also directs new funding to drug addiction treatment and recovery programs. The state will now use marijuana sales tax revenue and the savings from reduced drug arrests and incarceration to bolster a fund to pay for drug treatment. That fund will be run by a yet-to-be-established Oversight and Accountability Council, established within the Oregon Health Authority, which will be in charge of issuing grants to local governments or community organizations in charge of running addiction centers.

Theshia Naidoo, managing director of the department of legal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, the organization that spearheaded the campaign, said that between now and February, the state’s biggest responsibility will be creating the oversight council. This group will need to include members specializing in addiction medicine, drug treatment, and mental health, along with people who have lived with substance use disorder. “The goal is to center the experts,” she said.

In the meantime, advocates hope the state legislature will approve measures to address criminal record expungement for people who have been convicted of drug crimes, something not specifically addressed in the ballot initiative. Based on an analysis commissioned by the state legislature, an estimated 1,800 fewer people will be convicted of felonies for possession of a controlled substance and 1,900 fewer people will be convicted of misdemeanors, a decrease of more than 90%.

The measure’s opponents, including the Oregon District Attorneys Association and some addiction recovery groups, said that they hope there is room to make adjustments as the state rolls out new policies. One concern opponents raise is that the measure doesn’t provide enough money for addiction services in a state that already lacks sufficient treatment options. 

Kevin Barton, the district attorney for Washington County, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that he is “hopeful with this new effort that it will be successful to address addiction” but that “everyone can agree it's an experiment.” 

The measure’s passage was celebrated by groups like the ACLU and the NAACP, which said that the initiative would significantly reduce racially disparate drug arrests and start treating drug use as a public health problem instead of a crime. Naidoo said that the victory “takes a sledgehammer to the cornerstone of the war on drugs.” 

“More people are arrested for drug possession than any other crime. Disproportionately those are Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and low income people,” she said. “[Measure 110] allows people to reimagine what the world of policing should be. We are hopeful based on the trend of marijuana legalization that this will set off a cascade of other efforts around the country.”

The domino effect of marijuana legalization was seen last night not just in ambitious drug proposals like the one in Oregon, but also in marijuana legalization efforts that occurred in states far more conservative than the early frontrunners in the marijuana movement. 

Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved a proposal to allow people to use medical marijuana, in a break from neighboring states like Alabama and Tennessee where the drug is still fully illegal. Voters in the other state considering medicinal marijuana—South Dakota—also approved their ballot initiative, along with one that legalized recreational use of the drug, making the state the first to approve both medicinal and recreational use at the same time. Voters in three other states—Arizona, Montana, and New Jersey—also legalized recreational marijuana use. 

The results mark a turn for states where Republican state leaders urged voters to vote against marijuana measures. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said that marijuana is “not good for our kids and it's not going to improve our communities” while Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said that the state didn’t “need the wholesale expansion that full-throttle legalization will bring."

The process in these states isn’t over—the state legislatures still need to establish the regulatory framework for legal sales, such as a process for applying for dispensary licenses.

The rollout of marijuana marketplaces in other states has been fraught with claims of discrimination against Black applicants, even as Black communities most bore the brunt of the drug war. Arizona’s measure aims to head off those issues from the start—the initiative establishes specific "social equity" licenses for applicants from communities heavily impacted by drug laws. Arizona and Montana’s measures also allow people convicted of marijuana crimes to have their criminal records expunged.

With the addition of these states, 35 states and the District of Columbia will allow medicinal use of marijuana and 15 states allow the legal sale of recreational marijuana. One in three Americans now live in a state where recreational marijuana is legal. 

Magic mushrooms also saw a successful night on the ballot. Oregon’s Measure 109 will create the nation’s first therapeutic psychedelics program, wherein patients with treatment resistant depression and other conditions can consume psilocybin in a supervised clinical setting. And in Washington, D.C., more than 75% of voters said yes to Initiative 81, effectively decriminalizing entheogenic plants including ayahuasca and psilocybin, the main psychoactive component of hallucinogenic mushrooms. 

Naidoo from the Drug Policy Alliance said that incremental measures like the one in Washington, along with other local efforts like district attorneys who have chosen not to prosecute drug crimes and create drug arrest diversion programs, helped set the stage for the wave of statewide ballot measures dealing with drugs this year. “All of these local efforts have been laying the groundwork to where we can actually have statutory change,” she said.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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