Why not Oregon?
That's the question advocates are asking as they try to make the state the nexus of the next wave of drug policy reform in the United States.
Two separate local campaigns are currently working to get what might be the two most far- reaching drug reforms in recent American history on the 2020 ballot. One centers on legalizing psychedelic "shroom" therapy; the other would decriminalize almost all drugs, period.
There is no single reason the state is so well-positioned to be a laboratory for drug reform. Instead, imagine a vast, multi-layered Venn diagram including public health needs, quirks of local history, unique funding opportunities, costs, arcane ballot access rules, demographics, and politics.
At the center of all these overlapping circles sits Oregon, nearly all by itself. Yet both statewide campaigns are intended to not only address local concerns, but to also start a much greater movement.
“We see this not only as a template for Oregon but for the rest of the country and the world,” said Sheri Eckert, one of the chief petitioners for the Psilocybin Service Initiative of Oregon (PSI 2020), which would make Oregon the first state to legalize access to psilocybin-assisted therapy statewide.
The campaigns have already generated interest from big donors: PSI 2020 recently launched their signature gathering with a $150,000 donation from Dr. Bronner’s, the natural soap company.
Then there's the 2020 Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act (DATRA), a sweeping proposal for reform based on the drug policy model in Portugal that would decriminalize low-level possession of nearly all drugs, greatly expand access to treatment services, and encourage people to make use of them. It has the preliminary support of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national group that has been instrumental in funding drug reform efforts across the country.
A lot of people in the state could use the mental health help
One element both statewide campaigns stressed is how significant problems in Oregon have created a need for new approaches to mental health, addiction, and drug treatment. Oregon is second to last nationally in Mental Health America's 2020 overall ranking of the 50 states and DC, a list based among other things on the prevalence of mental illness and access to care in the state. The same group found Oregon to be the state with the third highest rate of substance abuse disorder among adults.
"We feel that Oregonians are ready to take an innovative approach to mental health care and the problem of addictions, because the current modalities and delivery systems have proven inadequate," said Tom Eckert, Sheri's husband and himself a chief petitioner for the shroom campaign.
“Oregon needs this,” added Anthony Johnson, a chief petitioner for the broader drug treatment measure. “We rank near the worst in drug treatment resources per capita. We have waitlists that are too long.” (The campaign prominently features the claim that 1 in 11 Oregonians suffer from addiction.)
Oregon has a history of radicalism
But an easy-to-communicate need for change is not enough to ensure a successful campaign. Success requires a way to enact change, a way to pay for change, and a political climate willing to embrace change—all things the campaigns and the people behind them think Oregon has at this moment.
“Oregon has always been pretty progressive in terms of drug policy,” said Matt Sutton, a spokesperson for the Drug Policy Alliance. It is one reason his organization is considering making a serious investment in the 2020 Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, he said.
Sutton and experts not associated with the campaigns pointed to Oregon's history of reform at the ballot and the statehouse as an indication it could be ready to embrace more radical change. Oregon was the first state to decriminalize marijuana in 1973. It was the third state to legalize marijuana via a ballot measure in 2014. The state also approved of legalization by the second-widest margin so far—just slightly behind California, which voted on legalization in a more favorable presidential year election. And in 2017, the Oregon legislature changed the law to reduce many drug charges from a felony to a misdemeanor.
There are young people there who actually vote
Part of what has made Oregon receptive to drug policy reform in the past is the state's liberal leanings and its high youth turnout. Young adults tend to disproportionately support drug reform like marijuana legalization, and thanks to election policies such as same-day registration and automatic registration, Oregon has among the best youth turnout rates in the country. By one count, among 42 states with reliable data on youth turnout, Oregon ranked 4th last year.
Meanwhile, Oregon's modest population and permissive ballot rules make it a relatively cheap place to run a ballot measure campaign. Compared to other liberal states with ballot measures, “you are not going to have to spend as much on your campaign in Oregon,” said Josh Altic, Ballot Measures Project Director for Ballotpedia. Data from the non-partisan organization shows that among left-leaning states, Oregon has among the lowest average cost for getting enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and for running a persuasion campaign, he said. This has historically made Oregon a point of interest for national organizations and groups across a wide range of issues who are looking to test new policies or trying to start national trends.
The weed cash is flowing
One of the biggest factors unique to Oregon in this moment is the legal marijuana revenue surplus. It has generated significantly more cash for the state than originally projected, so the treatment measure would use this extra large windfall to pay for its program. The hope is that this sidesteps what they know can be one of the biggest challenges for ballot measures that propose new programs: how to pay for them. "Having the revenue from legalization of cannabis makes a program like this much more likely," Johnson said.
While Sutton believes Oregon has “very favorable conditions,” there are still a lot developments outside of the campaign’s hands that could impact DPA's decision on how much to invest in the state, he said. For example, the treatment measure is still waiting on an official ballot title and summary from the Secretary of State, which can have a large impact on how voters react to the question at the polls.
There are people devoted to fighting off the haters
Which serves as a reminder: both campaigns still need to get on the ballot and win over the public. Neither of these tasks is easy, particularly for big, new idea, according to Jack Miller, a politics instructor at Portland State University. “Getting a voter to No only takes one important objection to the specific measure, while getting a voter to Yes usually requires overcoming all of their possible hesitations and objections," he said.
The PSI 2020 campaign has released some internal polling showing their measure with a narrow plurality of 47 percent to 46 percent, but also that it does much better after voters hear the campaign's argument. Altic of Ballotpedia was asked to put these early numbers in historical context. Based on this limited information, these figures were not great, but not an impossible place to start from, he said. The numbers suggest, he added, that to succeed, “their message will need to be more prominent than any sort of opposition.”
Even if these efforts don’t succeed in 2020, that doesn’t mean they failed, experts and advocates said. Miller pointed out that it’s often difficult for campaigns like this to succeed the first time, but it “starts the process of educating the public about the issue." Additionally, it allows the campaign "to learn about the kinds of objections the opposition will put forward—kind of a dual learning process that can be very helpful for putting forward a modified proposal a few years later."
In other words, there's no guarantee Oregon is ready to reshape the entire course of drug policy reform in America. But advocates behind these campaigns are putting the state in prime position to lay claim to that mantle.
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