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Measure 110’s unintended consequences

Oregon’s system of initiative and referendum, which allows the state’s voters to enact legislation on their own or repeal laws passed by the Legislature, is a powerful tool when used in the right way. But is a blunt instrument, too often employed to push complex laws that may come with unintended consequences. Measure 110 is an example of what can happen.

The measure passed by voters in 2020 promised to address drug addiction by decriminalizing possession of small amounts of dangerous drugs and tapping marijuana tax revenue to connect users with addiction treatment programs. A year after the measure took effect, the results are, to put it charitably, mixed.

Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous detailed the implementation of Measure 110 in a series of stories that concluded today. She found that, while the new law has funneled millions of dollars into services for those addicted to drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine, it hasn’t actually paid for any treatment.

That’s because the state fears using the proceeds from taxing marijuana could jeopardize federal Medicaid funding that helps pay for treatment. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

That’s not to say Measure 110 hasn’t done any good. It has paid for referral services for drug users, overdose antidote kits and housing. Those are all important to the overall goal of helping people beat addiction, but they are not what voters were told they would be providing by voting for the measure.

Housing advocates say drug users who are living on the street or along the Greenway have little incentive to give up their habits, which help them cope with the rigors of survival. When they are housed, they tend to use less.

Some Measure 110 grants went to support Rogue Retreat’s Kelly Shelter and urban campground.

The local nonprofit group Max’s Mission, which distributes free kits containing an easy-to-use antidote to counteract the effects of an opioid overdose, reports funding from Measure 110 has helped the group save lives across three Southern Oregon counties.

All these services are valuable, and contribute to addressing the problem of addiction. But drug counselors and others say the state must find a way to increase available treatment, and Measure 110 isn’t doing that.

It’s also not having the intended effect on users who are cited for drug possession. The measure reduced the crime of simple possession from a misdemeanor to a fine of just $100, less than many traffic tickets. And a user given such a fine can have it waived simply by calling a state hotline and answering screening questions. They can also get referred to drug treatment.

But out of 1,280 people cited in the first nine months, only 51 called, and only eight asked for treatment information.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Addiction is a powerful force, and those caught in its grip seldom decide on their own to seek a way out, especially when there few consequences. That’s why Jackson County’s drug court has been so successful: It uses the prospect of prison time for burglary and other drug-related property crimes to prompt users to complete treatment.

That works in many cases, though not all. A $100 ticket just doesn’t carry the same weight.

As often happens when a well-intentioned but flawed ballot measure gets passed, the Legislature must step in and fix it. The short legislative session that begins next month is a place to start. The state stands to get $329 million from the multi-state settlement with opioid pain pill manufacturers who contributed to the addiction epidemic. That money should be put to work to help people caught up in it.