Drug Reform Measures Reach State Ballots, Despite Pandemic

By Hilary Corrigan
Jul 1, 2020
Proponents of the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act in Oregon turned in signatures for the ballot initiative last month. This week, the measure qualified for the November election.

Drug-related ballot measures appear likely to reach voters in several states, even after the pandemic interrupted peak season for collecting signatures.

The year started with what legalization activists considered a “dream map” to reform drug laws in states across the country. Those efforts dropped off as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Even so, many efforts pressed on with masked, gloved signature collectors using new social distancing protocols, sanitizer and individual pens.

Campaigns in several states sought approval to gather signatures online, but few such requests received clearance. Several campaigns, such as a California bid to decriminalize psilocybin — the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms — fell short.

But as of this week, a REC measure in Arizona and a MED measure in Nebraska completed their signature drives. A REC push in Montana awaits word about its final tally. An Oregon proposal to allow psilocybin for therapeutic treatment turned in its signatures, with backers expecting to make the November ballot. Additionally, an Oregon initiative to remove criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of all drugs qualified after turning in signatures in June.

“We’re really excited,” said Devon Downeysmith, campaign communications director for the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act.

Some efforts weren’t affected by the pandemic. The New Jersey state legislature put a REC measure on the ballot, so it required no signatures. And two states had the necessary signatures before COVID arrived — Mississippi for a MED measure and South Dakota for MED and REC.

Now, organizers of the ones that needed signatures will pivot from that work — made much harder by COVID — to informing voters and passing their measures in November.


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Oregon’s new approach to addiction

If the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act passes, it would make Oregon the first state to decriminalize personal possession of small amounts of all illegal drugs. The effort aims to shift how the state addresses addiction. The proposal uses existing pot tax money to fund expanded addiction and recovery services, including housing. The hope is it would make treatment more accessible, for example by reducing long waits. It would also fund peer support and intervention and set up recovery centers. 

“We could be setting a precedent for other similar reforms in other states,” Downeysmith said. The drive collected more than 160,000 signatures. The 116,622 valid ones exceed the required 112,020.

Organizers suspect the pandemic helped generate support for the proposal. For example, prisons are now hotspots for COVID-19, campaign manager Peter Zuckerman said. COVID has also exacerbated the addiction crisis, as more people are stuck at home, isolated, and suffering from anxiety and stress.

“Addiction can affect anybody and it almost affects everybody,” Zuckerman said. “Oregon really needs this measure.”

Current movements on racial injustice have also highlighted the need for the measure, he added. Police commonly use drug searches as a reason to stop and search people. Criminal convictions can impact immigration status, home and education loans, apartment rentals and professional licenses.

Downeysmith said the campaign will now pivot to “building the strongest coalition possible” before Election Day.

The campaign has organizers and partners throughout Oregon. They include former U.S. attorneys, judges and a district attorney. A quickly growing list of endorsements includes the American College of Physicians, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, ACLU, Human Rights Watch and big unions, among others.

The effort seems to have minimal organized opposition. But Downeysmith pointed to “50 years of rhetoric” from the drug war that she said has misinformed people and created a stigma.

Oregon’s new approach to therapy

Organizers of another Oregon ballot proposal, the Psilocybin Therapy Initiative, expect to qualify after turning in nearly 165,000 signatures to meet the 112,020 threshold.

The proposal would create a regulatory program allowing licensed psilocybin therapy, which has been gaining credibility in recent years. “We are celebrating” through the weekend, said campaign manager Sam Chapman.

Going forward, their strategy to promote the measure, also the first of its kind in the U.S., entails using the group’s health care advisory and veterans committees to spread the word. Backers will detail what the therapy is, what research shows and who can benefit. The campaign also plans to use conventional advertising, social media, text, phone calls, webinars and Zoom.

It’ll involve “a lot of online education,” Chapman said. “We can’t afford to not try everything we can.” Oregonians need access to new treatments “now more than ever,” he said.

Arizona REC

The Smart & Safe Arizona initiative filed 420,000 signatures with the Arizona Secretary of State on Wednesday.

“It’s symbolic,” Stacy Pearson, spokesperson for Smart and Safe Arizona and a senior vice president at public affairs firm Strategies 360, said of the number. It also far exceeds the approximately 238,000 required.

The REC measure would legalize the sale, possession and consumption of one ounce of marijuana. It’s expected to generate $300M in annual tax revenue for community colleges, public safety, health programs and roads. It would also allow for expunging criminal records related to convictions on low-level marijuana charges.

The state will confirm the signatures’ validity over the next couple of weeks. Pearson is confident it will breeze through and be approved by voters. “Legalization is inevitable,” she said. “It will pass in Arizona in November.”

The campaign will soon start talking directly to voters “about the benefits of this policy for Arizona,” Pearson said. Without revealing too much, she pointed out that jobs and the economy are priorities now. 

She also said the push expected to benefit from current movements for criminal justice reform and public health funding. “Our initiative is even more relevant now,” she said. “We know that this effort is gaining popularity.”

The campaign said it faces negligible opposition and does not expect any challenges to the process confirming the validity of signatures.

Nebraska MED

A MED initiative in Nebraska plans to turn in signatures on Thursday. To commemorate the milestone, a socially-distanced event will include speakers and a U-Haul to take the documents from the state capital to the secretary of state’s office.

Jared Moffat, the campaign’s coordinator for Marijuana Policy Project, expects the total valid signatures will meet the approximately 122,000 required. The campaign had more than 160,000 signatures on Wednesday and was still collecting.

“We’re using every minute we have,” Moffat said. “We feel pretty good. We feel like we have the numbers.”

The proposal would allow patients to access MED with a doctor’s recommendation. The state legislature would create a regulatory program to facilitate it. Organizers were hopeful of gaining enough signatures, but it was a push.

“I’ve really never seen the kind of grassroots mobilization,” Moffat said of the drive during the last couple of weeks from a largely volunteer team.

Like many states, Nebraska did not allow electronic signatures, meaning collectors had to be in signers’ presence during the pandemic. It would have been much less challenging to qualify without COVID, Moffat said, “because there is a lot of support for this.”

Montana REC

Moffat also expects a REC initiative in Montana to make the ballot. That campaign turned in a total of more than 130,000 signatures last month for two separate but complementary initiatives.

A statutory initiative would legalize REC possession and use, setting up a regulatory framework for cultivation and sales. It requires about 25,500 signatures. The complementary constitutional initiative would set the legal age for buying, consuming or possessing the drug at 21. This would match the approach Montana took in setting the legal age for alcohol. It requires 50,000 signatures. The state is now determining the validity of the signatures.

“We feel very, very confident,” Moffat said of qualifying. MPP has been working with the New Approach Montana campaign on the effort. Even if the constitutional one does not, though, he expects the other can move forward.

The current climate makes the argument for the proposal stronger, he said. The economy is not doing well and the additional tax revenue is “extremely appealing to the public and to legislators,” he said.

This story has been updated.