Oregon’s controversial drug law under scrutiny: Proposed 2024 initiatives seek to amend Measure 110, reinstating criminal penalties for hard drugs

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Two proposed initiatives for 2024 would enable Oregon voters to modify a controversial law that removed criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of hard drugs.

Measure 110 was passed by voters in 2020, and earmarked most state proceeds from retail marijuana sales for drug treatment programs across the state. 

The measure passed with 58.5% of the vote in 2020, but opponents say the measure needs to be updated. 

Sponsors have amassed $700,000, some contributed by Nike cofounder Phil Knight, for their attempt to qualify one of the two ballot initiatives to the general election in November 2024, though it is unclear which one, if either, will move forward. 

Though he is not an official sponsor on either proposed initiative, former lawmaker Max Williams has been the public spokesman for why critics say there must be change in Measure 110.

“I think almost all Oregonians would agree that it’s made things worse,” Williams told the Oregon Capital Chronicle, a nonprofit news site. “People are dying, lives are being lost and a number of our communities around the state are less safe. … Frankly, we owe it to the people who are dealing with addiction and their families and our communities to do better.”

Williams spent the past decade as president of the Oregon Community Foundation, a job he left in 2022. Before then, he spent seven years as director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, and from 1999 until 2004, he was a Republican state representative from Tigard.

What the proposed updates would do to Measure 110

The common provisions of both proposed measures — known as Initiative Petition 44 and 45 — would make possession of drugs such as fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine subject to criminal penalties again as misdemeanors or felonies, depending upon the amounts recovered. Measure 110 removed criminal penalties for possession of specified small amounts and replaced them with a $100 fine, which could be waived if someone agreed to a drug evaluation. Though the 2020 measure did not legalize those drugs, critics said the change signaled otherwise to the public.

Both initiatives would do away with the “Class E” violation created by Measure 110 and would ban use of drugs in public places. The Portland City Council recently banned open drug use in the city, but the ordinance was deemed unenforceable without a change in state law. 

The iniatives also call for mandatory treatment for drug addiction as a condition of probation. 

Both versions exclude marijuana, which is covered under a different ballot measure that voters approved in 2014.

There are some differences in the two initiatives. While both would leave intact the 2020 measure’s earmarking of most state cannabis taxes for drug treatment programs, one would transfer funding responsibilities from the Oregon Health Authority to the independent Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission.

OHA was criticized for being slow in funding treatment providers, and that criticism was a factor in the resignation of director Patrick Allen. Money was finally released late in 2022.

The longer of the two proposed initiatives, Initiative Petition 44, also would empower police to fight drug trafficking by increasing penalties against repeat drug dealers and restoring penalties for possession of drugs with intent to sell.

‘Find find a balance between the public health approach and the public safety approach’

Republican legislators sought to get a repeal of Measure 110 before voters earlier this year, but Democratic majorities declined to act during the 2023 session.

Sponsors have been careful to say their proposed initiatives would not repeal the 2020 measure, though restoration of criminal penalties would change state law back to what it was before Measure 110.

“It’s a way to find a balance between the public health approach and the public safety approach in a way that motivates people into active treatment and recovery and give them the tools and frankly, the communities the tools they need to address their concerns,” Williams told the Chronicle in September.

Recent history has shown that voters are wary of changes to ballot measures they have approved, though the Legislature does have broad authority to make changes in statutory initiatives. 

The official sponsors of both proposed measures are Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler; Jerrod Murray, executive director of Painted Horse Recovery, which specializes in services for Native Americans, and Juanita Swartwood, a retired Portland Development Commission executive.

Oregon was the first state in 2020 to remove criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs other than marijuana.

The initiatives have been filed with the state Elections Division, but have not yet begun collecting signatures.

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