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Politics & Government

Oregon Voters To Decide On Drug Decriminalization, Campaign Finance Limits

This package was sent to a half-million Oregon households containing petitions for an initiative that would take congressional and legislative redistricting out of the hands of the Oregon Legislature.
This package was sent to a half-million Oregon households containing petitions for an initiative that would take congressional and legislative redistricting out of the hands of the Oregon Legislature.

As of Thursday afternoon, just four measures appeared likely to qualify for the general election, the fewest in more than 50 years.

Oregon voters could approve sweeping drug decriminalization and formally authorize statewide campaign finance limits, under measures that are headed to the November ballot. Even more striking might be what they won’t be voting on.

As of Thursday — the deadline for signature submissions — just two citizen-driven initiatives appeared set to qualify for the general election ballot. They would join two other measures referred to voters by the Legislature.

If that lineup remains in place, Oregon voters would consider the fewest statewide measures in a general election in more than a half century — an anomaly attributable to the coronavirus pandemic and a deal struck earlier this year between conservationists and timber companies.

Still, the four measures up for consideration could pack a punch.

Under the proposal, possession offenses currently treated as misdemeanors in most cases would instead amount to a $100 ticket, which could be waived if a defendant undergoes a substance abuse screening. At the same time, the measure proposes to use savings from prosecutions of low-level offenses plus a large portion of the state’s existing cannabis taxes to make addiction treatment far more accessible in Oregon.

IP 44’s backers include an array of labor, advocacy and community groups, though the effort is primarily bankrolled by the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization that advocates decriminalization.

Supporters say treating addiction as a public-health issue makes sense. And they point to figures that suggest Oregon is among the worst states in the country when it comes to offering access to addiction treatment.

“We know that by reducing criminal penalties for possession we’ll immediately have thousands of people who won’t be saddled with criminal convictions,” said Anthony Johnson, a chief petitioner behind the measure. “It seems clear to me that more access to drug treatment and recovery services will be a health benefit.”

If the measure passed, Oregon would be the first state in the country to decriminalize low-level possession of the drugs named in the measure. Johnson says the state, which led the nation in decriminalizing marijuana possession in 1973, is well positioned to be a pioneer once again.

IP 44 hasn’t attracted any formal opposition so far, but has faced concerns. The state’s largest teachers union has questioned the funding formula behind the measure, which could redirect tens of millions of dollars in cannabis taxes that now go to schools. The Oregon Education Association has not taken a formal position on the proposal, a spokesman said Thursday.  

Some in the law enforcement community also criticize what they see as a measure that could normalize drugs that can lead to crippling addictions and overdoses.

Voters are also likely to be faced with another drug-related question: Whether to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for use in supervised therapy.

As of Thursday, IP 34 had not formally qualified for the ballot. But petitioners were confident it will be certified, once elections officials have assessed roughly 30,000 signatures the campaign turned in on Monday. With that final push — collected largely via mail and online efforts due to the COVID-19 pandemic — backers are confident they’ll qualify.

“We’re hoping to hear back some time in the next couple of weeks,” campaign manager Sam Chapman said Thursday.

Under a proposal currently known as Initiative 401, voters could amend the state’s constitution to explicitly allow for limits on campaign contributions. Oregon has historically been one of a handful of states that impose no such limits, though a Supreme Court decision in April opened the door for regulations even without an explicit constitutional change. 

Oregonians will also decide whether to hike tobacco taxes in the state to fund health care. Under what’s currently known as Initiative 402, cigarette taxes would increased by $2 per pack, cigar taxes would increase, and a 65% tax would be placed on vaping products.

The fate of a fifth proposal striving to qualify for November’s ballot was unclear Thursday.

Backers of a proposal to create a new commission to draw legislative and congressional districts found themselves hamstrung by the pandemic when they were approved to collect signatures in early April. They’d been attempting a long-shot effort to collect nearly 150,000 valid signatures via mail or the internet.

“This is entirely new territory for any initiative-signature campaign,” Norman Turrill, a longtime Oregon League of Women Voters official who is one of the measure’s chief sponsors, told OPB earlier this year.

The proposal, Initiative Petition 57, has been presented as a way to limit partisanship in redistricting. The process is currently driven by the Legislature, with supermajority Democrats poised to dominate when districts are rejiggered next year.

Four ballot measures would be the fewest an Oregon general election has seen since 1966, according to records compiled by the website Ballotpedia. There likely would have been far more measures on the ballot were it not for the coronavirus, which hampered signature gathering for an array of efforts, from new gun control measures to proposals seeking to slow climate change. 

On top of that, at least six proposed measures were taken off the table when timber companies and conservation groups struck a deal around forest management this year.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting