HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html State Ballots Show A Shifting Debate On Legalizing Drugs
Pubdate: Tue, 27 Oct 2020
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2020 The New York Times Company
Website: http://www.nytimes.com/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/298
Author: Kirk Johnson

STATE BALLOTS SHOW A SHIFTING DEBATE ON LEGALIZING DRUGS

Oregon has an addiction problem. Pockets of rural poverty, chronic
homelessness and cities with lots of young people have given the state
one of the highest rates of substance abuse in the nation. It is also,
because there is so little money allocated to it, one of the toughest
places to get treatment.

A proposed solution on the ballot next week would be one of the most
radical drug-law overhauls in the nation's history, eliminating
criminal penalties entirely for personal use amounts of drugs such as
heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. Tax revenues from drug sales
would be channeled toward drug treatment.

Supporters of the Oregon proposal, Measure 110, say the swirling,
transformational forces of 2020 - the coronavirus pandemic, as well as
the wave of social unrest over race, policing and incarceration - have
highlighted a need for top-to-bottom change. Opponents say
decriminalization courts disaster by normalizing drugs that carry the
risk of deadly addiction.

Oregon is far from alone in stepping out onto new terrain. Legal
marijuana, stalled for years in politically conservative states even
as more left-leaning areas plowed ahead, has found a place on the
ballot this year in Arizona, Mississippi, Montana and South Dakota.
National groups that have long dreamed of a federal overhaul of drug
laws say that success in those states could bring Republican elected
officials into Congress with constituents who have said yes to
legalization, potentially tipping the balance in Washington.

Money is an undercurrent everywhere, as many state budgets face big
shortfalls as a result of the drop-off in consumer spending during the
pandemic, forcing a search for alternative tax sources.

"The pandemic has only highlighted and intensified the need for new
options," said Sam Chapman, the campaign manager for Yes on 109, a
separate drug measure on the ballot in Oregon that would make
psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, legal for
mental health treatment. Voters in Washington, D.C., will decide in a
ballot measure there whether to make possession of fungi-based
psychedelics the lowest level of police priority, but Oregon would be
the first with a statewide treatment policy. "We all know someone who
is suffering," Mr. Chapman said.

Dave Lewis, a Republican who served in the Montana Legislature and as
state budget director under three governors over a 42-year public
career, framed the argument for legal recreational marijuana in his
state as the counterpunch in a fight Montana needs to win.

"This Covid thing is kicking our butts," said Mr. Lewis, 78, who is
advising the group backing recreational marijuana legalization, though
he is not, he said, a consumer himself or much interested in becoming
one.

Mr. Lewis said that a sharp decline in visitors, as people have been
locked down at home around the country, has hit Montana's outdoor
tourist economy hard; marijuana legalization could contribute 4,000 or
5,000 new jobs, according to an analysis by the University of Montana.
"That's huge in Montana - my goodness gracious, we're like 44th in
family income," he said.

Half the tax revenue from the Montana measure is pledged to public
lands and outdoor recreation - an estimated $18 million a year - which
has brought in powerful new political allies, including the Montana
Wildlife Federation and the Trust for Public Lands, both of which have
signed on as supporters.

In New Jersey, which is bracing for an 18 percent decline in tax
revenues next year, the drug debate is framed around the police and
police budgets. Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, is backing a
recreational marijuana measure on the ballot, telling voters that
saying yes to legalization would save tens of millions of dollars and
allow police officers to focus on more serious public safety threats.

In South Dakota, where voters will decide on medical marijuana and
recreational sales in two separate ballot measures, a key pitch is a
plan to allocate half of the revenues from recreational marijuana
taxes to public schools.

"People know the government needs money, and the schools definitely
need money," said Drey Samuelson, the political director of South
Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, the group that sponsored
legalization.

Opponents of drug legalization argue that the need to find new
revenues during the pandemic may be leading people to grasp at straws
- - and leaving them prone to being manipulated and misled.

In Mississippi, the Legislature has inserted itself into the debate
over a measure to legalize medical marijuana. Lawmakers put a separate
measure of their own on the ballot that would give them the power to
decide how any legalization is put into place.

In Nebraska, where a medical marijuana measure qualified for the
ballot, an antidrug group sued and the State Supreme Court last month
struck it from the ballot. In South Dakota, opposition has been led by
the state's Chamber of Commerce, which argues that highway and worker
safety will suffer.

Opponents to the hard-drug decriminalization measure in Oregon say it
would lead to more addiction both by making drugs easier to get and
also by removing law enforcement and the courts from the equation.

Currently, many people arrested with small amounts of opiates or other
drugs are offered a way out of criminal prosecution through a
diversion into treatment and counseling. But without a judge forcing
the issue, opponents said, many people will not face up to an
addiction problem.

"The sad reality is that many, many people will never seek treatment
without the motivation of criminal charges," said Paige Clarkson, a
prosecutor in Marion County, Ore., and the president of the Oregon
District Attorneys Association.

The American Psychiatric Association and the Oregon Psychiatric
Physicians Association both oppose the state's psilocybin proposal
because they say that while the drug has indeed shown medical promise
- - the federal Food and Drug Administration last year called psilocybin
a potential "breakthrough therapy" for treating major depression - the
measure's proponents are going too far by saying it might help
everything from anxiety disorders to addiction.

Across the country, backers of these new drug measures say that the
old ways simply have not worked, and that the pandemic has made
everything worse. Covid-19 outbreaks in jails and a growing awareness
of how many people of color have been imprisoned for drug offenses
make a potent new argument, supporters said, for thinking another way.

"Voters, and people at large, increasingly understand that now,
especially, is not the time to be arresting somebody for drug
addiction," said Peter Zuckerman, the campaign manager for the 110
measure. "Drug addiction is a health issue; it deserves a health
response," he added.

Both sides in Oregon's decriminalization debate do agree on one thing,
though - that the state's drug problems have gotten worse. A decade
ago, according to federal health reports, Oregon was 10th worst in the
nation in the proportion of residents with a substance abuse disorder,
including alcohol. By 2016-17, in the most recent rankings, it had the
fourth-highest rate. At the same time, the percentage of people who
needed treatment but were not receiving it rose from ninth to third
worst in the nation.

And while some states that already have legalized marijuana have not
realized as much in new tax revenue as had been hoped - California,
for example, had trouble luring marijuana buyers away from the black
market - the pandemic has been good for legal marijuana sales in Oregon.

Demand has soared, up almost 75 percent between March and August of
this year, giving the state budget a jolt of tax revenue in the process.
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