FILE - Oregon Ballot Drop Box

A voter drops off mail in ballot at an official election ballot drop box in Portland, Oregon.

(The Center Square) — Penalties for drug possession in Oregon are among the lightest in the nation, and they may get lighter still as Oregonians vote on whether to make “magic mushrooms” a legal medicine.

In 2017, Oregon lawmakers downgraded first-time drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, whose highest penalty is a year in prison and or a $6,250 fine.

Measure 110 reclassifies drug possession as a low-level misdemeanor which would carry a fine of $100 or a health assessment for drugs like heroin, cocaine, and others listed under the U.S. Justice Department’s Controlled Substance Schedules I-IV.

Penalties for making or selling such drugs would still carry jail time under the measure.

A report by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission estimated that convictions for drug possession could decline by 3,679 or 90.7% under Measure 110.

Under the measure, the state would save roughly $24.5 million between 2021 and 2023 in reduced Department of Corrections expenditures, according to state analysis.

Measure 110 would also have the Oregon Health Authority establish substance abuse clinics paid for with marijuana tax revenue.

Similar policies adopted by Multnomah County have seen racial disparities in felony drug conviction rates decline sharply, though not arrest rates.

In 2018, Black and Indigenous defendants were convicted of felony drug charges at higher rates than white defendants, a state commission found. Those rates are down from more than 300 in 100,000 persons to less than 50 in 100,000 persons.

Nationally, black men are more than twice as likely to be charged with an offense that carries a mandatory minimum sentence like drug possession as white men facing similar circumstances, a Yale Law Journal study found.

Yes on 110 is leading the campaign in support of Measure 110 and has raised $4.6 million in contributions. The nonprofit group Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for drug policy reform, has contributed more than $3.5 million to it.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s public advocacy fund, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, has donated half a million dollars to the campaign.

Measure 110 has received opposition from the Oregon Catholic Conference, the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police, and AllMed Healthcare Management.

For Reverend Alexander Sharp of Clergy for a New Drug Policy, the foundation for any moral drug policy is harm reduction.

“The way I like to explain it to audiences, especially in religious audiences, we're not against drug use, we’re against drug abuse,” Sharp said. “It’s abuse that we need to focus on, if we're concerned about the well being and the folks around us.”

The belief that stopping drug use boils down to never putting a needle in your arm, as Sharp says, takes away the possibility of fostering an environment where people can turn to treatment.

Sharp says that criminalizing drug use and possession prevents cities from creating places like safe consumption sites where drug users can ween themselves off of drugs.

“The whole concept of trying to keep people as safe as you can from the dangers and the harms of drug use is simply impossible if you start with an abstinence only option,” Sharp said. “I think harm reduction is a humane and compassionate way of responding to the reality of drug use.”

According to a 2018 report to Oregon lawmakers, one in 10 Oregonians are diagnosed with an addiction as well as one out of 10 homeless people in the state.

In 2006, untreated drug abuse cost the state up to $5.9 billion in lost earnings, health care costs, and law enforcement, according to the report.

The campaign against the ballot measure is led by the Vote No on Measure 110 committee, which reported raising over $55,300 in contributions.

Dr. Paul Coelho of Salem Health Hospitals and Clinics claims the measure will only produce a costly “revolving door of drug abuse.”

“The framers of Ballot Measure 110 portray individuals with active addictions as rational actors who will naturally seek out and accept treatment for their condition,” Coelho said in public testimony. “But I can assure you as a front-line provider this is simply not true, nor is the levying of a token $100.00 fine a financial disincentive of sufficient magnitude to coax the ambivalent or pre-contemplative person into a life of abstinence or long-term recovery.”

Drug reform proponents argue that decriminalizing illicit drugs would allow scientists to study their potential in the medical field.

Measure 109 will allow psilocybin, a substance more commonly known as “magic mushrooms,” to be taken under the supervision of a licensed medical professional with a prescription.

Some critics of the measure, such as Decriminalize Nature Oregon, argue that making psilocybin a prescription only drug would cut its benefits off from those who may need it the most.

Shaun McCrea, executive director of the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, says that the country’s drug policies are costing governments and defendants too much.

“It’s just breathtaking the amount of money it takes to incarcerate somebody,” McCrea said.

A misdemeanor drug possession charge can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, McCrea says. But the human toll is even greater from her perspective.

In Oregon, even possessing a trace amount of a controlled substance is enough to warrant criminal prosecution.

“If someone has a baggie, that doesn't really have any drugs in it, but has a trace amount of some drug, whether it's methamphetamine or cocaine or something else, that person can be charged with possession of that drug,” McCrea said.

Too often, McCrea says, clients are at the mercy of the court if they need access to proper care.

In one case, McCrea represented a client addicted to methamphetamine, who she says spent around 14 months in pre-trial detention awaiting his hearing in federal court.

The only treatment available to him was zero tolerance which carried tough penalties for failure. He succeeded when many do not.

Oregonians will vote on both measures on November 3.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.