When Election Day came to a close this past November, the fate of the country was in limbo. Ballots across the nation were still being counted, and it’d be days until Joe Biden was announced as the next president of the United States. But for voters and activists, there was one obvious winner that Tuesday night—and that winner was drugs.
On Nov. 3, 2020, New Jersey, Arizona, and Montana all voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Mississippi voted to legalize medical marijuana, and South Dakota voted to legalize both. But it was in Oregon where voters made history, approving Measure 110 and becoming the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. As of Feb. 1, possession in Oregon can no longer lead to jail time. Instead, individuals can choose between a $100 fine or a health assessment at an “addiction recovery center,” funded by redistributed tax revenue from legalized marijuana sales. The centers are intended to provide triage, treatment, and recovery services, and funds can also be used for peer support, housing for people with substance use disorders, and harm reduction services.
For the Drug Policy Alliance, it was a time to rejoice. The New York-based non-profit wrote the ballot measure, in partnership with Oregonians, which was ultimately supported by more than 120 local and national groups. The organization’s political arm, Drug Policy Action, financially backed the initiative and helped lead the campaign throughout the state. “For us, it’s like this dream happened,” Kassandra Frederique, Drug Policy Alliance’s executive director, told me. “But this is a moment in a longer vision.”
Following the historic vote, I Zoomed with Frederqiue and an entire squad of DPA’s leading women. Even on screen, their camaraderie was palpable. They graciously passed the mic to each other and made sure to call out one another’s contributions, inadvertently demonstrating how a group of women was able to take decades of activism and help channel them into this monumental win.
Policies like Measure 110, which decriminalize drugs and offer better access to treatment, have been a consistent dream for those in the movement, one that didn’t come true overnight. The team explained how DPA has been on the ground in Oregon for more than 20 years, building relationships with local partners, like Partnership for Safety and Justice, which advocates for public safety and criminal justice reform, and Outside In, one of the country’s first syringe exchanges. DPA also has a history of working on progressive policies in the state, like legalizing marijuana in 2014. (Oregon was also the first U.S. state to pass a death with dignity law in 1994.) Theshia Naidoo, managing director of legal affairs at DPA, said Oregon’s history of embracing such forward-thinking measures made activists feel the state might be ready to “take the leap” on this policy, too, even though it had never been tried before in the U.S.
This content is imported from Instagram. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.
Oregon was also in a particularly dire position, with an ongoing addiction crisis and racial disparities in drug-related arrests. According to a report from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, and released by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, if the ballot measure passed, racial disparities in drug-related arrests would drop by 95 percent and convictions would drop by 94 percent for Black and Native Oregonians. The state also ranked nearly last in access to treatment for substance use disorders. It all helped people realize that “we need a new way,” Naidoo said. “We can’t criminalize our way out of this problem.” Plus with the presidential election, 2020 was shaping up to be a banner year for voter turnout, which typically translates to more Democratic votes—an ideal time to introduce progressive policy.
However what organizers couldn’t have predicted back in 2019, when they were beginning to collect ballot signatures, was one of the seismic events that would come to define the start of the decade: the Black Lives Matter movement. This summer, as protests took place in cities nationwide, the conversation began to center around defunding the police, cutting police department budgets, and reallocating the money toward community-based solutions and services.
“Everyone said, police are doing way too much,” Frederique said. “And what were the things they pointed out? Homelessness, mental health, substance use. And here we were, with our partners in Oregon, the same place where the federal government rained down [on protestors], and we had already put the infrastructure in place to remove police from a vital health issue.” But, she clarified, the timing wasn’t a fluke, rather the result of decades of organizing and research. “That luck is the residual of preparation and building that desire, giving people the ability and the space to want different and be able to reach for it.” Measure 110 was always about more than dismantling one system, according to the women of DPA. It was about ending the harm of criminalization, while also creating an alternate path for support.
Now, the “what’s next” is pretty straightforward: to repeat this success in other places. Lindsay LaSalle, the managing director of policy at DPA, noted that since November, representatives from state legislatures around the country have reached out to DPA and expressed interest in introducing similar legislation, something she said was unimaginable even just a few years ago. “Theshia and I worked many, many years ago in Vermont just to get a bill that would allow a task force to study the impacts of decriminalization in the state,” she said. “Simply finding a sponsor for that bill to conduct research was incredibly difficult. Now we have legislators in Vermont clamoring to introduce a full-scale decriminalization effort.” Other states to look out for include California and Washington, where a bill has already been introduced in the state legislature.
It’s certainly a shift for people like Naidoo, who said she started in drug policy reform almost 15 years ago, back when it was considered a “fringe issue.” Since then, reform has proven to be a strategy that everyday people can and will support, thanks in part to DPA.
“The reality is you’re looking at powerful, innovative, expert women here,” said Ellen Flenniken, DPA’s managing director of development, before we end the Zoom. “This [success] was a result of DPA being an organization of ambitious risk-takers that are also deeply rooted in our community, our movement, and the people who have been most harmed by the war on drugs, with a clarity that we have to work to end it, no matter the cost.”
For Frederique, this point is crucial. “The narrative around who gets harmed by the drug war erases women all the time, at every level,” she said, adding that the perspective these women bring to the table is essential. “It makes sense why, if you look at our staffing, we’re set up the way that we are, right? We care that people have dignity in every interaction that they have. That’s what we’re fighting for.”
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io