Activists in Oregon have collected more than the required raw number of signatures to qualify a historic initiative to decriminalize drug possession and increase access to treatment for the state’s November ballot.
While they must still be validated, the campaign announced on Thursday that it has gathered 125,000 signatures—more than 10,000 over the required total to make the ballot. Organizers will keep collecting signatures, however, to ensure that they turn in more than enough to qualify in case some are deemed invalid.
“We’re thrilled to see such a positive response from the community,” Anthony Johnson, a chief petitioner with the campaign, told Marijuana Moment. “Oregonians know that the current system is failing them, and they’re ready for a better approach. We’re happy to have exceeded the number of signatures required, but we’re also not taking any votes for granted. That’s why we’ll continue collecting signatures to make sure we’re well within a safe margin for verification.”
The initiative, which is backed by the national organization Drug Policy Action and other reform groups, would make it so low-level possession of currently illicit drugs would be considered a civil infraction punishable by a maximum $100 fine and no jail time.
The fine could be waived if the individual completes a health assessment at a substance misuse recovery center. A licensed health professional would conduct the screening.
Reform advocates have stressed that the measure’s primary goal is to treat addiction like a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice problem. Enhancing access to treatment is therefore key, as Oregon ranks among the worst states in terms of resources to substance misuse recovery options. The measure would fund expanded substance misuse programs by using some marijuana tax revenue that currently goes to schools.
Decriminalization is the other component, and the system was developed to model other successful harm reduction policies across the U.S. and around the world in countries such as Portugal, which removed criminal penalties for possession in 2001 and subsequently saw a dramatic decline in overdose deaths and an increase in people seeking treatment.
“Oregonians are dying every day because they can’t access treatment. And in the meantime, if they are caught with drugs, they are criminalized, which only creates further barriers to accessing treatment and recovery,” Janie Gullickson, the initiative’s chief petition, said in a press release. “Oregon can do better.”
“This Act would provide a two-fold solution: funding treatment through existing marijuana tax revenue, and creating an incentive for people to access treatment instead of burdening them with a criminal record,” she said.
Last week, the campaign announced that it had amassed a large number of endorsements from various civil rights and health groups, including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
The “Drug Treatment and Recovery Act” was first filed in September. The campaign then launched a limited signature gathering process to determine whether there would be enough support to justify a statewide push.
“Oregonians have always been early adopters of drug policies that shift the emphasis towards health and away from punishment,” Theshia Naidoo of Drug Policy Action said in a press release about the new signature gathering achievement. “The idea behind this groundbreaking effort is simple: people suffering from addiction need help, not criminal punishments.”
“Instead of arresting and jailing people for using drugs, the measure would fund a range of services to help people get their lives back on track,” Naidoo added. “We are excited to partner with this grassroots campaign as they pave the way to a more humane, health-based approach to drug addiction.”
Separately, another Oregon campaign is in the process of collecting signatures for a measure to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.
Outside of Oregon, a growing number of cannabis reform measures are building steam in states across the country.
Advocates submitted a ballot initiative this week to legalize marijuana in Ohio.
A marijuana legalization initiative qualified for South Dakota’s ballot in December, and a separate medical cannabis measure will also go before that state’s voters this year.
Mississippi activists collected enough signatures to qualify a medical marijuana legalization initiative for the ballot.
New Jersey’s legislature approved a resolution in December that will put the question of full marijuana legalization to voters.
This story was updated to include comment from Johnson.
Written by Ben Adlin