Former Gov. John Kitzhaber Urges “No” Vote on Measure 110, Which Decriminalizes Drug Possession

Kitzhaber built a reputation for health care innovations but says the proposed changes are too extreme.

Former Gov. John Kitzhaber. (Leah Nash)

Former Gov. John Kitzhaber over the weekend urged Oregonians to vote against Measure 110, which would decriminalize the possession for personal use of heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and certain opioids.

"As a parent, a doctor and former Governor, I urge Oregonians to vote 'no' on Ballot Measure 110," Kitzhaber wrote on his blog.

"I understand that a central motivation behind this ballot measure is to help reverse the disaster caused by the War on Drugs, which incarcerated people suffering from addiction and had a disproportionate impact on Black and Indigenous people and other communities of color. I agree with this goal, but Measure 110, as written, makes it more difficult to treat the underlying addiction that leads to drug use in the first place."

Kitzhaber, 73, a former emergency room physician and the longest-serving governor in Oregon history, stepped down in 2015 amid an influence peddling scandal. Over the past couple of years, he has periodically offered his thoughts on important health care policy issues through letters to public officials, newspaper op-eds and his blog.

He acknowledges that law enforcement approaches to drug use have failed and that Oregon's high rate of substance abuse disorder and low rate of treatment are both unacceptable. But he doesn't like the solution offered by Measure 110 or its funding mechanism, which would divert about $100 million a year in state cannabis tax revenue from its current uses—primarily funding K-12 education, county-based mental health and addiction treatment, and the Oregon State Police—to regional services that would assess and refer for treatment those suffering from substance abuse disorders.

Kitzhaber says that's less useful than today's admittedly flawed system.

"Today, those arrested for illegal drug possession in Oregon are offered state-funded treatment services through diversion programs, including drug courts," Kitzhaber wrote. "Measure 110 would eliminate this invaluable tool by reducing the possession of highly addictive drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and oxycodone to a 'violation,' which means the court will no longer have the ability to offer people the choice to pursue treatment. It also means that a teenager caught in possession of heroin or meth will only receive a ticket, which in many counties means that parents won't be informed of their child's drug use."

Updated at 5:45 pm: Amanda Marshall, the former U.S. attorney for Oregon, who is now in private practice, disputes Kitzhaber's description of how Measure 110 would work. She is a strong supporter of the measure as she wrote recently in the McMinnville News-Register.

Marshall, who like Kitzhaber resigned from her position under pressure in 2015, says Kitzhaber and other opponents are wrong about the potential impact on juveniles who are cited for drug possession under Measure 110.

"Currently, when kids get arrested, their parents get notified," Marshall says. "That won't change and to say otherwise is just engaging in fear tactics."

Marshall also says Kitzhaber's assertion that the criminal justice system currently provides a path to "state-funded treatment" that will no longer exist under decriminalization is misleading.

There is currently no real treatment offered in county jails for people who are addicted, Marshall says. People who are arrested may currently qualify for treatment paid for by the Oregon Health Plan, if they are sufficiently low-income that they meet Medicaid eligibility requirements, but Measure 110 would not change that eligibility.

"There's no free treatment that comes from drug court or from being locked up," Marshall says. She notes that the $100 million in cannabis tax money that the measure draws upon will fund far more options than currently exist, without saddling those suffering from addiction with criminal records.

WW endorsed a "yes" vote on Measure 110. Our reasoning is here.

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