Initiative Petition 44 launches a new vision of drug treatment and recovery in Oregon

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Air date: 
Mon, 03/02/2020 - 5:30pm


Oregon voters may get the chance to vote on a significant drug policy reform measure in this year’s general election.

Supporters of Initiative Petition Forty-Four launched the ballot measure effort on Saturday. The Oregon Drug Treatment Initiative would establish a drug addiction treatment and recovery program, funded by the state's marijuana tax revenue. It would also reduce the charges of possession of illegal drugs, even Schedule 1 drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine to a non-criminal $100 citation. According to the proposed initiative, the citation can be waived if the individual agrees to go to counseling. 

Andy Seaman, an addiction specialist and assistant professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University related his experience with the cycle of sickness and trauma around drug addiction at the launch. [Clip 1]

KBOO’s Doug McVay spoke with one of the measure’s chief petitioners, Portland-area public health and harm reduction advocate Haven Wheelock, to learn more about the promise of the initiative. [Clip 2]

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Audio Transcript

Clip 1

Andy Seaman  0:00  
There is probably no one here who doesn't know that we are in the middle of an overdose crisis. Between one and two Oregonians dies every day from an overdose. And we're still doing the same thing, treating addiction as a moral failing that if we just ramp up arrests and put more people in jail who use drugs, we can make this work instead of treating it like a medical illness that is, providing access to life saving treatment. 

So I worked as an addiction medicine specialist, as a health care for the homeless physician and as a jail doc, and what my experience has shown me without any question is that providing access to support for safer use or for treatment or recovery always we more likely to support health and wellness than any mechanism that involves shaming and punishing people. I think a lot of people in this room could speak to this better, better than I. But I'm going to walk you through my experience as- caring for people in this system under the current model. 

So imagine that you are a young woman who is living with an opioid addiction, just trying to get through every day and avoid the constant cycle of sickness, from withdrawal. They decide they want to change their life, or maybe they want to, they want to shift things up, or they just, they just want to be more well, and they- they're just trying to break that endless cycle of sickness and trauma. And so they go to seek treatment and they just run into barrier after barrier of- trying to find access to a better way to use more safely so they don't die or find access to, maybe it's abstinence and maybe it's recovery, and maybe it's remission or medications to help them not feel sick every day. So they're back in the turn. Maybe they get picked up for some small thing and they're incarcerated. now you're in jail. You're going through opioid withdrawal. So I used to have to do this to people. Okay, like, over and over again. You're on methadone or you're, you're using heroin or something and you're going through a bit of withdrawal. Now you're in jail further traumatized, it is a very traumatizing experience to be sick in jail, in a cold cell. And then we send you out to the street sometimes in the middle of the night. Okay, only to find out that you don't have housing anymore, or you lost the job that you were trying to hold down, or whatever, and if you make it through those first two weeks, okay, so in the first two weeks, as Haven alluded to, you have some around 120 times the risk of overdose as your community partner dweller, right. Like that number is baffling. I've never seen that anywhere else in medicine. So if you make it through those first two weeks, now you have a criminal record, right? And so your chances of long term employment, long term housing, all the things that kind of help finding meaning in our lives that help give us the things we need for long term recovery or safer use or whatever it is that you're- you want that provides meaning to you. The cycle of trauma continues. 

And now what I have seen is that people start to internalize the messaging from our community that comes with criminalization, you know, that, that they're not worthy of help that that they're not going to make it not for everyone, but I've seen that too many times. And I'm just not going to participate in another conversation about stigma and drug use, without simultaneously talking about decriminalization, because that's what that's what our laws are for, right? We're trying to- we're trying to tell people that what you're doing is wrong. That's why we make things illegal. So then you can't talk about stigma without getting rid of that. And I just don't, I don't buy it. So this measure provides hope for a different approach. We can disrupt this cycle at its roots by providing immediate access to treatment or safer use or whatever it is that you're looking for, to be safe today. Rather than- build people up rather than tearing them down.

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Clip 2

Haven Wheelock  0:00  
Hi, I'm Haven Wheelock. I'm a chief petitioner on IP44, which is an initiative trying to move substance use disorder out of the criminal justice system and put it in the hands of the health care profession.

Doug McVay  0:11  
Okay, now, Initiative Petition 44 is just starting out, you got a lot of signatures to go, this would be for the 2020 ballot?

Haven Wheelock  0:18  
Yeah, we're shooting to have it on the ballot for November of 2020. And we're very hopeful that we will make it to the ballot and that we will get this passed to change the way our state addresses substance use.

Doug McVay  0:29  
Okay, now, specifically what exactly is going to happen? There's something about possession charges or what's the deal?

Haven Wheelock  0:34  
Yeah, so what this initiative is going to do, it's going to use existing marijuana tax revenue to fund drug treatment statewide. It's also going to move simple possession, so the possession of small amounts of drugs from a- currently it's a misdemeanor, it will move it to a violation that can be waived if you show up for a drug assessment.

Doug McVay  0:55  
What happens to people who have a misdemeanor arrest why- why would this- why is this important? 

Haven Wheelock  1:00  
So it's important for a couple of major reasons. One, when you're arrested for substance use, you are actually more likely to die in the first two weeks once you're released. So not having people to cycle in and out of jail where they're at increased risk of death is really important. Also, any criminalization causes stigmatization, and, you know, we talk a lot about how stigmatizing- er stigmatized drug use and drug addiction is. And if we're really trying to address that stigma, we need to stop criminalizing people across the board for symptoms of their disease. 

Doug McVay  1:34  
And then the other side of this is- I mean a lot of marijuana tax revenue coming in. So this would just move some of that tax revenue into treatment. How's that?

Haven Wheelock  1:41  
Yeah, so the idea is taking the unallocated money and so the money that's already been allocated stays where it's at. But any money and revenue above that will be moved into substance use treatment across the state. And when I say treatment, I'm talking full spectrum treatment so everything from harm reduction services like syringe exchange, and overdose prevention to long term recovery supports to housing to like, legal clinics. And it's all really flexible so people can- jurisdictions can choose how to best support their community and what their best needs are. 

Doug McVay  2:13  
How do people find out more? How can people support this?

Haven Wheelock  2:15  
Yeah, if you want to get involved, please check out our website. It's  There, you can sign up to volunteer, you can sign up to host events, you can share your story of addiction because it's so prevalent in our community that we have those. And so you can just sign on to the website and get involved as best you can. And you can vote.

Doug McVay  2:35  
I've been speaking with Haven Wheelock. She's a Portland-area public health and harm reduction advocate, and one of the chief petitioners for Initiative Petition 44. Reporting for KBOO news, I'm Doug McVay.

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