An Interview with Anthony Johnson, an Integral Force Behind Oregon’s Unprecedented Approach to Drug Possession
In July 2019, a gaggle of friends traveled north to Oregon for a week-long vacation in the trees, beginning in Sweet Home, where the 2nd Annual, Pleasant Valley Cider Apples Music Festival and Campout was being held. I was lucky enough to be included in that gaggle, and it was there that I met Anthony Johnson, the Executive Director of Vote Yes on 91, the revolutionary measure that gave Oregonians the legal access to cannabis that they deserved. It wasn’t until I returned to San Diego later that week when I realized who Anthony was, and after learning about his involvement in the measure, his illustrious career as a drug reform activist, and everything he’s done in the state of Oregon, I thought to myself, “why don’t I reach out to this man to understand further how that all went down?” So that I did, perhaps, as a look inside what one leading state has done for its citizens, that other states and the federal government could take direction from, with regard to the archaic and racially disparate “War on Drugs.”
Drugs, a hot topic for the state of Oregon these days, or most days, depending on who you’re talking to (hint: it’s everyone).
When we last spoke in August of 2019, Anthony mentioned that he was working on another measure that he could not comment on at the time. Fast forward to today, and that turned out to be Measure 110. What was Measure 110? If you’ve paid any attention to recent news, you’d know it more as Oregon’s unprecedented and noteworthy law that decriminalized ALL drug possession, while blazing the trail towards more treatment instead of incarceration. No big deal, right? Wrong! Measure 110 is a HUGE step towards ending the “War on Drugs,” which, let’s face it, is really a war on BIPOC through and through, that has been lost a thousand times over since its inception, going on 50 years now.
According to their website, last accessed February 1st, 2021, The Health Justice Recovery Alliance, the organization largely responsible for Measure 110’s success, is a coalition of “more than 65 community-based organizations across the state with deep knowledge and experience working to serve and strengthen local communities: medical associations, culturally-specific organizations, labor, harm reduction and recovery providers and advocates, people in recovery and more.” Which would explain precisely why adopting this novel approach to drug possession in the state of Oregon made sense. It was driven by the people it affects the most, and not by fear mongering, propagandizing politicians who refuse to acknowledge the ongoing catastrophic and expensive failure known as the “War on Drugs.”
With Measure 91 now in its 7th year, Oregon’s cannabis market continues to mature. In 2020, Oregonians shopped in dispensaries upwards of 30% more than they did in 2019, with sales reaching over $1B for the first time.
Here is what Anthony had to say about the process, the successes of Measure 91, and the challenges the team working on the measure overcame to get there.
(These questions were originally submitted to Anthony in August 2019, and we circled back in January 2021 so we could close the loop on Measure 110, which, as of February 1st, 2021, is now law in the Beaver State.)
1: It’s been 5 years since Measure 91 passed. Do you think Measure 91 is a success, and why?
Measure 91 has been a success because it has saved thousands of people from citations and arrests, while creating thousands of jobs and generating millions of dollars of revenue for the state. Additionally, arrests for drug crimes have plummeted as cannabis prohibition is a gateway to more arrests of nonviolent people. Cannabis convictions are being expunged and we’ve set the state for future drug policy reforms.
2: Tell us what your biggest challenge was during the campaign.
Combatting decades of Reefer Madness propaganda. The media running fear mongering stories about the potential of cannabis-infused candy being given to children in Washington and Colorado on Halloween, just several days before all ballots had to be turned in, was rather challenging for us.
3: How does the success in Oregon compare to national legalization? In your opinion, what needs to happen for national legalization to be done correctly, what are the prerequisites?
Oregon is a great model at the individual level allowing home cultivation, good possession limits, no per se DUI law, no retail tax for patients, and allowing the expungement of old offenses. At the business level, the cannabis plant is still too over regulated. If the federal government would legalize and regulate cannabis like alcohol, it would solve a lot of the problems businesses face at the state level as it would open up banking services to cannabis businesses and allow for loans and going public. I hope that federal legalization will expunge old convictions, and legalize possession and limited home cultivation across the country.
4: You’ve been working on “New Revenue Coalition,” what led you to want to pursue cannabis cafes?
It is rather nonsensical for the state to legalize cannabis commerce, but then not provide any establishments that allow people to utilize cannabis. After we get past the COVID pandemic, of course, cannabis cafes and similar businesses will provide a safe place for patients and consumers that can’t use at home and for tourists. It would prevent unnecessary citations for smoking in public and generate more revenue for the state. I’m glad to see California and Nevada making progress on this and hope that Oregon will follow.
5: Why do you think it was important to protect the right of the home grower? What was the decision-making process in designating the number of plants per rec/medical grower?
Allowing home cultivation provides a check on governmental overreach, such as localities banning cannabis business or a presidential administration ordering the state to stop issuing licenses. Additionally, it provides a check on cannabis getting too expensive. Finally, it should be a right to cultivate a nontoxic plant. If folks can brew beer, they should be able to grow cannabis. The medical plant numbers in Oregon were already set by previous legislation. Honestly, we chose four plants because that was the most that Oregon advocates like myself could convince campaign funders to approve! Trust me, we tried to legalize more.
6: Considering the organic food industry, and how people are willing to pay a premium for organic produce, do you believe that cannabis users would pay a premium for organic cannabis products? Why or why not?
I think that it would be like food. You’ll have some people that are willing to pay the higher price, while others will be more price conscious. If studies find that there are benefits to organic cannabis, then people will flock to organic, so long as it isn’t too expensive. I do look forward to federal legalization so cannabis can officially have the organic designation.
7: California was the first medical cannabis state, with ‘safe access,’ for medical cannabis patients. Since California went recreational, ‘safe access’ has been affected. How has recreational affected medical cannabis access in Oregon?
Unfortunately, the state has taken the opportunity after legalization to overregulate medical cannabis growers. Fees have been increased, too-burdensome tracking regulations have been put in place, and plant limits have been reduced. Hopefully, with federal legalization, medical cannabis can be covered by insurance programs so patients that can’t afford to purchase it will still have safe access to their medicine.
8: Are you familiar with California’s competitive landscape of the Recreational vs. Traditional market? What do you think California needs to change in order to have a successful legal market?
I’ve been following California’s market. I think that the state will need to reduce barriers to entry and taxes to truly compete with the unregulated market.
9: You told me when we last talked in 2019, that you were awaiting news about a big new initiative to drop. Has that happened yet? What is it? (Answered January 2021)
The passage of Measure 110 exceeded my expectations. I’m so pleased that 58% of Oregonians agreed that it is time to stop treating personal drug possession as a crime and to start treating drug use as a health issue instead. I look forward to seeing fewer harmful drug arrests that have disproportionately harmed communities of color and more people getting access to treatment voluntarily. Just as Portugal’s drug decriminalization policy was an inspiration for us in Oregon, I hope that other states follow Oregon’s example to end harmful drug arrest and convictions. I’ve been a drug policy reform activist for over 20 years now and I’ve never been more hopeful for the future of the movement.
10: Any other particular things you want to talk about that we may not have covered, in relation to cannabis?
I think that we can see cannabis legal federally in the next couple of years if the Democrats take full control of the White House and Congress in the 2020 election. I urge folks to get involved and keep fighting until we achieve cannabis laws that work for the entire cannabis community, including patients, consumers, and small businesses.
So, there we have it, and today, Democrats do control the House, the Senate AND the Executive! Will we see cannabis federally decriminalized in the next two years? According to Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, we may very well see the federal decriminalization of cannabis as soon as this year.
When Anthony isn’t out there setting the bar as a drug-reform activist, he’s usually writing on the topic in the Kind Leaf Journal, which we’ve linked below, or consulting with his wife, and fellow trail-blazing drug-reform activist, Sara Duff through their firm, Duff-Johnson Consulting.
To reiterate what Anthony said – I too hope that other states, and subsequently the federal government, take direction from Oregon to make additional efforts to end the War on Drugs. Decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level will be the start. One could also posit that an approach similar to what Oregon did with Measure 110 – but at the federal level – would ultimately serve as the effective end of the unrelenting waste of time, effort, life, and valuable resources aptly known as the War on Drugs.
I’m not holding my breath.
Make sure to check out: kindleafjournal.com/author/anthonyj1977/
I want to see the war on drugs end in my lifetime.