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November ballot measure seeks to swap jail time for drug treatment recovery access

SCREENSHOT COURTESY OF YES ON IP 44 - Bobby Byrd is now a vocal advocate and campaign organizer for Measure 110 after having his life heavily impacted by a drug charge stemming from the 1990s. Bobby Byrd was never a political person. He's spent the last few decades of his life just trying to keep it on the right track and provide for his family, after a felony drug possession conviction in 1993. Now, he's one of the most visible advocates for the More Treatment campaign in support of ballot Measure 110, in hopes that what happened to him doesn't happen to anyone else.

Byrd says having felony drug convictions on his record has haunted him for decades, and prevented him from getting well-paying jobs. He recounts being offered promotions at companies like Wells Fargo and Intel, where he previously worked, only to be terminated once a background check revealed his past charges.

Now, he works with the developmentally disabled making about $15 an hour, not enough to adequately support his family.

Measure 110 would take a less punitive approach to small level drug offenses, instead connecting offenders with substance abuse and rehabilitation programs rather than jail and prison sentences.

PHOTO COURTESY OF YES ON IP 44 - Portland residents check out information about Initiative Petition 44, which will be on Novembers ballot as Measure 110, during a campaign launch event earlier this year.The measure would remove criminal penalties for misdemeanor offenses and instead give offenders a fine that could be waived if the offender seeks evaluation at an addiction recovery center.

"I know this is not going to change my past, but I do want to help others in the future," Byrd said. "My stake in this is to make sure we provide things and a new system (for people) to not get railroaded like I did, and have their lives ruined for over two and a half decades over a simple drug possession."

Measure 110 would also expand access to drug treatment programs for anyone who needs them, using money the state already gets from marijuana taxes. As written, if the state collects more than $75 million in marijuana taxes, the excess funds would pay for the treatment and housing services called for in Measure 110. In July alone, Oregon collected nearly $15.3 million in cannabis tax revenue, according to the Oregon Department of Revenue, and the state raked in $133 million in marijuana taxes in 2019.

"Bobby's story is unfortunately not unique," said Amelia Fowler. "Our drug laws impact black and brown communities the most."

FowlerShe points to research and data from Oregon's Criminal Justice Commission, which suggests that racial disparities in drug arrests and convictions could drop by as much as 95% if a drug treatment and decriminalization measure were to pass.

For Fowler, who lives in Hillsdale, the fight to get Measure 110 passed is also personal.

Fowler lost her father last November to a drug overdose.

"He was literally days away from accessing medically assisted treatment, it was devastating," she said.

Fowler is a social worker who's worked with incarcerated people and has seen the lingering effects of the War on Drugs. Her background and life experiences led her to become a political organizer for the Measure 110 campaign.

"The laws in place don't discourage people from using drugs," she argues. "They criminalize addiction."

Fellow More Treatment organizer Christian Berk, also a Southwest Portlander, agrees.

He battled addiction until 2014, and through his recovery efforts, got connected with people behind the campaign to reform Oregon's drug laws and access to treatment services. Berk is turning his own experiences into activism.

"I'm a firm believer that anybody can be an organizer," Berk said. "One of the biggest barriers to political participation is learned helplessness--'There's nothing I can do.'"

BerkBerk wants to change the state's approach to drug prosecutions, but before that can happen, he knows he needs to change a few people's minds.

"By working with the campaign, folks are learning a sense of their own power, whether that's having a conversation with your friends and family, and having an ask. ... Really, political power rests there, with the conversations we have around the dinner table."


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