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Residents in medical field explain their support of drug decriminalization, expanded access to addiction treatment

PHOTO COURTESY OF YES ON 110 - Janie Gullickson (left) poses for a photo with her fellow chief petitioners and proponents of Measure 110 in front of the Oregon Secretary of State's office in Salem earlier this year before submitting their signatures to get their proposal on the 2020 general election ballot. Dr. Ray Stangeland spent more than 30 years as a doctor inside emergency rooms where he saw hundreds of cases of addiction cause immeasurable harm to patients and, in many cases, preventable death.

"I've seen so many people who have said they would like help, that they're at the bottom, and I could not get them help," Stangeland said. "I've had cases where I know people have come in asking for help who later died of an overdose, because just so often in Oregon services have not been available."

The retired physician and Lake Oswego resident recently told Pamplin Media Group that he's backing Measure 110, Oregon's drug decriminalization and addiction treatment initiative that voters are currently considering on the 2020 ballot.

Come Nov. 3, Oregon could step away from a model that looks at drug use and addiction as a criminal justice issue. Instead, the new approach would divert criminal drug prosecutions to assessments that would triage the need for addiction treatment and help connect those struggling with addiction to a wide range of services and recovery options most appropriate for them. Possession of small amounts of drugs would be decriminalized. Funding for services would be provided by marijuana tax revenue, meaning that one couldn't be denied care based on their insurance or lack thereof.

Across Clackamas County, professionals like Stangeland and others who have experience treating those suffering from addiction are throwing their support behind Measure 110. They're advocating for this change not only as a more compassionate and fiscally effective way of treating drug and addiction related crime, but also as a major paradigm shift in how addiction is viewed by our society and de-stigmatizing asking for help. PHOTO COURTESY YES ON 110 - Dr. Ray Stangeland

"I think we're going to be able to provide services for addiction to assess, evaluate and educate in a way that we currently don't have for many people," Stangeland said. "It's the right, humane thing to do. Our best care shouldn't be based on one's income or educational background."

According to a 2018 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Oregon ranks 48th of 50 in terms of the percentage (8.82%) of people seeking addiction treatment, but cannot get it. Oregon also has the fourth highest rate (9.5%) of citizens with a substance use disorder.

Stangeland believes that Measure 110 is a step in the right direction toward addressing drug abuse and addiction as a medical emergency rather than a criminal justice issue.

"I don't quite know why, but we are remarkably at the bottom of all 50 states. How can that be? How can this progressive, thoughtful state that we live in fail this way?" he asked. "Somehow, this issue hasn't had a champion."

That changed in late 2019 when Anthony Johnson, Haven Wheelock and Janie Gullickson decided to become co-chief petitioners on Initiative Petition 44. In less than a month, IP 44 — now titled as Measure 110 — had requisite 1,000 sponsorship signatures to allow petitioners to begin collecting signatures to qualify for the 2020 ballot. By the end of June 2020, the petition had more than 156,000 signatures in support, well over the 112,020 required for a statutory change this election cycle. PHOTO COURTESY OF JANIE GULLICKSON - Janie Gullickson, co-chief petitioner of Measure 110

According to Gullickson, it was her own personal struggle with addiction and career as an advocate for addiction and recovery services that pushed her to become a co-chief sponsor of this proposal.

"When I was in my addiction and had those small windows of clarity, you reach out and if help is not had, then the moment passes. And then the cycle continues and eventually you're getting arrested and you enter this cycle of incarceration," Gullickson said.

Gullickson — who resides in Beavercreek — currently serves as the executive director of the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon (MHAAO), an inclusive and peer-run non-governmental organization aimed at promoting self-directed recovery and wellness.

For the past six years, Gullickson has worked to lead MHAAO in supporting people on their journey to recovery through education, advocacy, peer services, training and community collaboration.

"The idea that this sort of 'moral failing of drug use must be punished' approach has not worked," Gullickson said. "In decriminalizing addiction and having a health-based approach, my hope is that it will de-stigmatize addiction from both an outward view, but also self-stigmatizing view of where it is not so shameful and scary."

According to Gullickson, her vision is an Oregon where anyone struggling with addiction is able to receive an assessment for their problem and proper referral to services as anyone else would for any other health condition. She sees a future in which this preventative approach keeps people from criminal charges and sliding further down a path that further restrains them from living a healthy and productive life by impacting future potential to get a job or housing.

She also hopes that prevention will cut down on crimes associated with addiction such as identity theft and property crimes thanks to increased access to treatment that helps stop addiction's progress.

She also points out that Measure 110 is also an opportunity to address racial disparities in Oregon's criminal justice system by drastically reducing the number of drug convictions seen among black, indigenous and people of color.

According to a report by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, Measure 110 has the potential to reduce convictions for possession of controlled substances by 82% for Asian Oregonians to 94% for Native American and Black Oregonians.

"As we look to change our archaic systems and work to become anti-racist, this ballot measure serves that purpose," Gullickson said.

That's a particularly important point, according to Gullickson and other proponents of Measure 110, due to the fact that addiction doesn't discriminate based on race, religion, geographic location or socioeconomic status.

Grier Cundill is a retired addiction counselor who operated two clinics for the past 20 years, one in Northwest Portland and another in Estacada where he lives. SCREENSHOT: YOUTUBE - Grier Cundill, addiction counselor and founder of Coppertree Counseling.

According Cundill, he's supporting Measure 110 because he has seen too many young people make one mistake and land themselves in the cycle of Oregon's criminal justice system with very few opportunities to escape it.

Cundill said that he's happy to see Oregon shifting away from purely punitive measures that attempt to discourage behavior instead of providing services that get to the root of the problem. He sees it as a failure of America's insurance and medical systems to provide the best care to everyone despite their socioeconomic status, particularly since addiction knows no boundaries.

Instead of an all-or-nothing approach to providing treatment to those struggling with addiction, he sees Measure 110 taking a path in which drug and addiction services and recovery options are offered on a scale appropriate to the needs of the individual.

"We are a moralistic, punitive society, and we've often operated from that place for most of our existence as the United States of America," Cundill said. "And for things like addiction, this is not helpful because these are not bad people wanting to be better people. These are sick people wanting to be well."

Having dealt with addiction himself as a younger man, Cundill said that many people who struggle with addiction don't have a choice to get better until they're presented with the tools they need to deal with their problem. Once they're provided those tools, he said, they gain a completely different perspective.

"It doesn't excuse my behavior, (you're) still responsible for making bad decisions, or all of the things that go along with people that are unclear because their minds are clouded by drugs or alcohol," he said. "But you aren't responsible for the fact that your willpower has been compromised and your decisions to use were because you had this so-called 'addictive disease,' and that opens new horizons."

According to Cundill, he threw his support for Measure 110 as soon as he understood that this proposal has the potential to impact thousands of Oregonians by diverting them from a conviction.

"Anything that can lessen someone from being pointed toward the criminal justice system that has nothing to do with criminal justice and is more a socioeconomic and medical phenomenon, that's what needs to be done," Cundill said.

Opposition to Measure 110

Voters will find that although the statements in favor of Measure 110 outnumber those who are opposed 3 to 1, there are several influential groups and individuals expressing concern over the proposal. Many of their arguments center around the idea that, if passed, Measure 110 could normalize drug use, not only among adults, but for children and teenagers as well.

Of the state's 36 district attorneys, 25 of them, including Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote and Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton, oppose the measure.

According to a statement in the 2020 voter's guide, these 25 top prosecutors believe decriminalization of small amounts of drugs will lead to an increase in acceptability, "normalizing hazardous experimentation for our youth and increasing accessibility, surging supply and lowering costs of dangerous street drugs."

A handful of Oregon politicians have also come out against the proposal, including Oregon State Rep. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha) and Sen. Bill Hansell (R-Athena). Former governor John Kitzhaber has also expressed his opposition to the measure, citing diversion of money from schools and existing treatment programs and the elimination of Oregon courts' ability to offer treatment as his key concerns.

"Today, those arrested for illegal drug possession in Oregon are offered state-funded treatment services through diversion programs, including drug courts. 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," Kitzhaber said. "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."

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