By Jeff Mapes

Oregon Public Broadcasting

An influential national group that has led the way on cannabis legalization around the country is looking at asking Oregon voters to decriminalize the possession of all illegal drugs.

The Drug Policy Alliance, which has received major funding from billionaire investor George Soros, has filed a proposed initiative for the 2020 ballot and hired a team of political consultants in Oregon.

Matt Sutton, the spokesman for the New York-based alliance, said his group has not decided whether to move forward on the measure, known as Initiative Petition 44.

“We’re really just assessing the situation,” said Sutton, adding that the group is looking at “how we can move away from a system of criminalization to a more health-centered approach.”

Sutton said his group is also looking at similar measures in other states that he declined to name.

Oregon has long been a leader in lowering penalties for illegal drugs. In 1973, it was the first state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, making the penalty a fine equivalent to a traffic ticket. And in 2014, it was third to fully legalize the drug, behind only Washington and Colorado.

Since, the state has lowered several penalties for possession of illegal drugs.

But treating possession of drugs such as heroin or methamphetamine as a minor noncriminal violation could spark a fierce political debate.

“Decriminalizing all drug possession would be an extremely reckless move,” said Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton.

While seeking to decriminalize drug use, the alliance’s ballot measure would require the state to make major increases in funding for drug addiction treatment in Oregon. The state would have to pump at least $57 million in the first year into treatment, with the amount growing each year thereafter.

The money would chiefly come from taxes on marijuana sales, which are projected to produce about $120 million a year for the state. Additional money would be redirected from savings on prosecution and incarceration costs.

Janie Gullickson, the executive director of the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon and one of the chief sponsors of the initiative, said that Oregon is among one of the worst states in the country in terms of providing access to drug treatment.

“The wait list to get treatment is monthslong, and in some rural counties, there is practically no treatment at all,” Gullickson wrote in an email.

At the same time, the initiative has worried some treatment groups.

Mike Marshall is the director of Oregon Recovers, a coalition of provider groups pushing the state to upgrade its addiction treatment programs. He said he plans to hold a community meeting next month to discuss the initiative’s flaws.

He said he sympathizes with the group’s goals but calls the measure “too little, too soon and too dangerous.”

Marshall said legislators, state officials and health care providers are working on plans to upgrade treatment programs and better tie them into the overall health care system.

He said the measure’s treatment goals are not well thought out. And he said it doesn’t provide an alternative way of channeling people into treatment that often occurs when addicted drug users are forced into the legal system.

Barton, the Washington County district attorney, said that’s one of his major concerns.

“If we completely decriminalize drugs, there will be a whole host of people that will not get the treatment that they need,” he said, adding that many of these are “more dangerous and more addictive drugs.”

Peter Zuckerman, a communications consultant working on the proposed ballot initiative, wrote in an email that the current approach to drugs has failed.

“We need to start treating addiction as a health issue, not something we criminally punish people for,” he said. “Criminalizing drugs disproportionately harms poor people and people of color, and punishing people who are suffering from drug addiction ruins lives, is more expensive and less effective than treatment.”

Zuckerman said he is working with two longtime Oregon political consultants, Mark Wiener and Liz Kaufman. All three worked on the successful 2014 campaign to legalize recreational cannabis in Oregon.

The political arm of the Drug Policy Alliance contributed about $1.7 million of the $4 million campaign waged to pass that ballot measure. The alliance played a key role in similar pro-cannabis efforts around the country.

Polls show voters around the country support marijuana legalization by strong majorities, and many social justice groups argue that criminalizing drug use has been devastating to many minority communities. The opioid addiction crisis, which has hit many rural areas hard, has also spurred a rethinking of how to handle illegal drug use.

Some cities, including Seattle, have moved away from prosecuting individual drug users. But so far, no state has taken that step.

Sutton, the drug alliance spokesman, said his group should make in a decision in the next few weeks or months on whether to move forward with a ballot measure in Oregon. He said his group filed the initiative last month because the state requires petitioners to go through an often lengthy ballot title process before they can gather the 112,020 signatures needed by next July to qualify the measure for the 2020 ballot.

At this point, the initiative’s sponsors have gathered the 1,000 signatures necessary to begin the process for getting a ballot title.

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