Another Oregon county prosecutor announced on Thursday that his office will immediately stop pursuing drug possession cases following voters’ approval of a decriminalization initiative last month—even though it doesn’t formally take effect until February.
The early move comes as state regulators are seeking out applicants to serve on a new advisory board charged with figuring out how to distribute funds for expanded drug treatment services in accordance with the ballot measure.
Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt is the third prosecutor to get ahead of the curve, proactively enacting a policy change in recognition of the will of the voters.
District attorneys in both Clackamas and Deschutes County have also made the change, but Schmidt’s decision is particularly notable because he represents the state’s most populous county.
“The passage of Ballot Measure 110 sends a clear message of strong public support that drug use should be treated as a public health matter rather than a criminal justice matter,” Schmidt said in a press release. “Past punitive drug policies and laws resulted in over-policing of diverse communities, heavy reliance on correctional facilities and a failure to promote public safety and health. It’s time to move beyond these failed practices, expand access to treatment and focus our limited law enforcement resources to target high-level, commercial drug offenses.”
Under the voter-approved decriminalization measure, simple drug possession will be treated as a Class E infraction, punishable by a maximum fine of $100 and no jail time. That fine can be waived if an individual shows a court they have completed a substance misuse assessment.
“Multnomah County voters approved Ballot Measure 110 by an overwhelming 77% margin,” a memo to staffers in Schmidt’s office says.”While the effective date of the measure is February 1, 2021, there is no justification for using law enforcement resources to conduct arrests of individuals who are unlikely to receive treatment or who would not be able to resolve their case prior to the date of the measure.”
Aside from its decriminalization provisions, the statewide ballot measure also calls for investments in substance misuse treatment, using tax revenue from legal marijuana sales.
To that end, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) is currently forming an Oversight and Accountability Council that will decide how to allocate grant funds for the implementation of those treatment centers.
It’s inviting applications from people with direct experience with substance use, recovery professionals, those from communities disproportionately impacted by drug criminalization, harm reduction service providers and more.
Regulators are similarly accepting applications for members of an advisory board tasked with figuring out how to implement a separate voter-approved measure to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapy.
In the meantime, some complications have arisen with the decriminalization initiative. First, Gov. Kate Brown (D) proposed a budget for fiscal years 2021-2023 that would “delay implementing the financial portions of this measure until July 1, 2022” to give the state time to account for funding losses for other programs as cannabis tax revenue is redirected to the substance misuse treatment grants.
Meanwhile, Senate President Peter Courtney (D) signaled that he believes there may have to be a delay in getting the program up and running.
“When word came to me this passed, I just blinked,” he said following the vote. “This is so big, I think, in terms of public policy. I have no idea the financial ramifications of this and I don’t think anybody else does.”
He added that lawmakers “are not going to finish it in one session,” referring to turning the voter-approved measure into legislation.
In any case, the county-by-county decisions among district attorneys are encouraging to advocates.
“I applaud District Attorney Mike Schmidt and every Oregon law enforcement official that is treating personal drug possession as a health issue instead of a criminal matter,” Anthony Johnson, who served as a chief petitioner for the decriminalization ballot measure, wrote for Kind Leaf Journal. “The Drug War has not worked and it is time to implement a new, health-based approach. This is not a free-for-all to sell drugs as critics have nonsensically claimed and the sky will not fall, just as the sky remained above us when we legalized cannabis.”
The early discretionary reform action is consistent with how several counties in the state approached cannabis policy after Oregon voters approved an adult-use marijuana legalization initiative in 2014.
The vote in Oregon has also inspired efforts in neighboring Washington State to pursue a drug decriminalization model. While activists considered attempting to put it on the state ballot in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic derailed that plan—and last month, the campaign said they would soon be announcing a sponsor of a reform bill to push for its passage legislatively in the 2021 session starting January.
Meanwhile, New Jersey’s attorney general issued a memo last month directing prosecutors to suspend most marijuana possession cases following voter approval of a statewide legalization ballot measure this month.