In the Pandemic, a Shifting Ballot Debate on Legalizing Drugs

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 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.

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