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Drug Decriminalization Will Drastically Alter Oregon’s Public Funding

Times. They are a changin’.

Many Oregonians are uncertain about how the state’s new drug laws will affect them, and for good reason. We’re traversing into uncharted territory.

Measure 110, also known as the Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative, was approved by voters in November. It will come into effect on Feb. 1st, and essentially decriminalize the personal possession of small quantities of drugs. Oregon is the first state to adopt an initiative like this.

Specifically, the measure mandates a reclassification of non-commercial drug possessions below a specified amount to civil violations, rather than misdemeanors or felonies. Soon, instead of facing jail time, people charged with minor drug possession will either pay a $100 fine or be directed to complete a health assessment by a state-approved health center.

The quantity limit of each drug in question is found below:

CocaineTwo grams or less
HeroinOne gram or less
LSDLess than 40 user units
MDMALess than one gram, or 5 pills
MethamphetamineTwo grams or less
MethadoneLess than 40 user units
OxycodoneLess than 40 pills, tablets, or capsules
(from oregonvotes.gov, Measure 110 Explanatory Statement)

Illegal drug manufacturing and sales will still be considered punishable criminal offenses. 

Measure 110 reads that the new source of revenue from the $100 fine will be distributed by the Oregon Health Authority to dedicated health centers. Any savings–from reductions in arrests by police, fewer incarcerations, and less supervision for those charged with drug offenses–will be distributed as well.

Jennifer Black, the spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Corrections, said that Measure 110 won’t have an immediate impact on prisons, just local jails and community correctional facilities.

“Community Corrections is responsible for the supervision of drug offenses. With the passage of Measure 110, individuals will no longer be placed on probation, resulting in a decrease in the supervised population.”

Jennifer Black, Or. Department Of Corrections Spokesperson

Essentially, jails such as the Lane County Jail in Eugene—which has been overbooked throughout the pandemic, and whose inmates already weren’t getting the proper care they needed—will begin losing funding once the law kicks in on Feb. 1st.

Black said the financial impact on the department won’t really be known until April when a population forecast is released.

The Drug Treatment and Recovery Services Fund, or DTRSF, is another product of Measure 110. Its purpose is to redirect a portion of Oregon’s cannabis tax revenue towards designated health centers. Any taxed revenue higher than $11,250,000 per quarter ($47 million a year) will go to state-approved drug treatment and recovery programs.

And now, a wall of relevant data and statistics.

Last November, the state received $13 million from cannabis tax revenue. 

Here’s a summary of the expected changes for state program funding (all amounts in millions):

Fund/Service2019-212021-23
Drug Treatment and Recovery Services Fund$61.1$182.4
State School Fund$(17.1)$(73.0)
Mental Health, Alcoholism and Drug Services$(8.6)$(36.5)
Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention/Intervention$(2.1)$(9.1)
Oregon State Police$(6.5)$(27.4)
Net Increase in State Revenue$26.8$36.4
(from oregonvotes.gov, Measure 110 Financial Impact)

It is important to note that the numbers above are exclusive to the cannabis tax revenue distribution. By the way, anything in parenthesis is considered a loss of funds. 

The initiative calls for Oregon’s state legislature to provide $57 million annually for the DTRSF, which is projected to be paid for completely by redirected cannabis tax revenue. Therefore, state school funds, pre-existing health and substance treatment funds, and Oregon police funds will all take a significant hit.

Another document breaks down how cannabis tax revenue since 2017 has been distributed to these funds.

“These marijuana tax resources were initially scheduled to add about $104 million to the State School Fund. If the legislature is unable to back-fill with other resources, the fund will have to be decreased accordingly.”

Mike Wiltfong, OREGON EDUCATION DIRECTOR

The school fund for the current two-year period is $9 billion, so a $104 million loss would be about 1.2% of the budget.

While this estimate seems to be a modest change, it could mean more-than-modest cuts to teaching jobs and educational programs in state schools that are already reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Measure 110’s budget cuts and tax distribution policies are alarming, but some believe the changes to be crucial towards improving public health. Back in 2018, Oregon’s alcohol and drug abuse numbers were so high that Governor Kate Brown declared a public health emergency. While it is hard to exactly attribute any changes over time, the state’s drug usage may have actually been affected as a result. 

According to the Portland Police Bureau’s released narcotics and organized crime statistics, the total estimated value of drugs seized from 2017 to 2019 decreased about $10 million.

The Portland Police Bureau’s Public Information Officer, Melissa Newhard, talked about the department’s preparations for Feb. 1st.

“There won’t be any staffing changes or special units dedicated to enforcing the new drug laws,” Newhard said. “We’re hoping for the best, but it’s hard to visualize the long term plans.”

“I don’t think any of us really know how drug users or our police force will be affected by the law and funding changes over a long term,” she added.

So how did Measure 110 end up on Oregon’s state ballot?

As it turns out, the organization that lobbied for recreational cannabis legalization in Oregon back in 2014 was heavily responsible for Measure 110 being on the ballot last November.

The Drug Policy Alliance and its political arm, Drug Policy Action, reportedly contributed over $5 million to canvas and collect signatures starting in Dec. 2019. The language used in the measure was drafted by these groups during the years leading up to the 2020 election.

“We’ve seen Oregon rank nearly last in drug treatment and access to addiction services over the years,” Matt Sutton, the Alliance’s spokesperson, said. “With a drug overdose crisis happening on a national scale, hopefully other states will be able to take after Oregon’s laws.”

Sutton said that decriminalizing drug possession and setting up social supports for clinically unwell drug users has worked in other places in the world. He referenced Portugal, whose government set laws similar to Measure 110 way back in 2001, and saw a major decrease in convictions and imprisonments over the next decade.

Nathan Bouquet

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