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2020 Election Trend: Voters Liberalize State Drug Laws

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Voters in several states liberalized drug laws in this year's election, and Oregon became the first state to decriminalize the personal possession of all drugs. Amelia Templeton of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

AMELIA TEMPLETON, BYLINE: Voters passed Oregon's Measure 110 by a double-digit margin. It applies to all drugs, things like cocaine, heroin, oxycodone and methamphetamine. Haven Wheelock is one of the petitioners who got the measure on the ballot. She runs a clean needle program for injection drug users in Portland, and she's lost people to overdoses.

HAVEN WHEELOCK: It's the people I lost that keeps my fire hot.

TEMPLETON: Wheelock says the idea behind decriminalization is simple. Addiction is a health problem, and people with addiction need medical care and treatment, not punishment or criminal charges.

WHEELOCK: I'm excited to be a model for other places to show that we don't have to harm people for being sick anymore, that we can do it different than that.

TEMPLETON: Drug manufacturing and drug dealing will still be illegal. But possessing smaller amounts for personal use will be a civil violation, not a criminal offense. The maximum penalty - a $100 fine. And if a person agrees to get a health assessment, that fine gets dropped. The measure creates a fund to invest in treatment, housing and other services for people with substance use disorders. It uses money from Oregon's marijuana tax and the projected savings from arresting fewer people. The New York lobbying group the Drug Policy Alliance wrote the measure and spent millions supporting the Yes campaign.

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE: It is a huge sledgehammer to the cornerstone of the war on drugs.

TEMPLETON: That's Kassandra Frederique, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

FREDERIQUE: Drug possession is the No. 1 arrest in this country.

TEMPLETON: Frederique hopes Oregon will be a test case to convince activists in other states that decriminalization is politically viable.

FREDERIQUE: We saw this with marijuana, the domino effect.

KEVIN BARTON: It's an experiment.

TEMPLETON: Kevin Barton is the district attorney for Washington County, just west of Portland. He opposed the measure.

BARTON: It's a first-in-the-nation approach. Nobody quite knows what the result will be.

TEMPLETON: Barton thinks it will be easy for people struggling with addiction to ignore the $100 fine and not get a voluntary health assessment.

BARTON: What will they do next? Are they going to continue to use those drugs? And if they do, is there a connection to increasing other collateral crimes such as property crimes?

TEMPLETON: One thing opponents and supporters of decriminalization agree on - Oregon does need a new approach. It has among the highest rates of substance abuse in the nation, and it doesn't have a bed for everyone who needs treatment. For NPR News, I'm Amelia Templeton in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.