Lindsay Schnell USA TODAY
PORTLAND, Ore. – For Janie Gullickson, rock bottom came both slowly and all at once.
A long time drug and alcohol addict, Gullickson pushes back on the idea that one terrible day on the street leads to an epiphany and a climb back to normalcy. That’s what happens in movies, not real life.
“I lived in the bottom for years,” says Gullickson, now 52. “For me and people like me, I laid there and wallowed in it for a long time.”
But if she has to pick the lowest point – one that lasted years, not days, she says – it came shortly after she hit 30 in 1998. At that time, Gullickson had five kids by four different men, ages 5 to 11. She came home from work one day as a locksmith to find that her ex-husband had taken her two youngest and left the state. Horrified, devastated and convinced that this was the beginning of the end, her life quickly spiraled: She dropped her other son off with his dad, left her two daughters with her mom and soon became an IV meth user.
In prison six years later, Gullickson was contemplating joining an intensive recovery program when a “striking, magnetic gorgeous Black woman walked in the room, held up a mug shot and started talking about being in the very chairs where we were sitting,” Gullickson remembers. There was life on the other side of addiction and prison, the woman said. But you have to fight for it. Gullickson believed her
“I remember thinking, I may not be able to do all that, be what she was, but maybe I could do something different than this,” Gullickson says. “That day, I felt the door open to change and healing.”
Now Gullickson, the executive director of the Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon, is determined to give other addicts the same opportunity. That’s why she pushed for the passage of Measure 110, first-of-its-kind legislation that decriminalizes the possession of all illegal drugs in Oregon, including heroin, cocaine, meth and oxycodone. Instead of a criminal justice-based approach, the state will pivot to a health care-based approach, offering addicts treatment instead of prison time. Those in possession will be fined $100, a citation that will be dropped if they agree to a health assessment.
The law goes into effect Monday and will be implemented over the next decade by the state officials at the Oregon Health Authority.
Advocates say the pivot will be life-changing for thousands of Oregonians.
“One of the things people misunderstand is how criminalization creates barriers to treatment,” says Kassandra Frederique, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit dedicated to legalizing illicit drug use. “If we want people to make different choices, we have to give them more options … ending criminalization will do leaps and bounds around ending shame, which automatically opens people up for other opportunities.”
Nationally, others are hopeful this could be the first in a wave of progressive measures that undo years of damage caused by drug criminalization, which disproportionately imprisoned people of color across the U.S.
“I hope that we all become more enlightened across this country that substance abuse is not something that necessitates incarceration, but speaks to other social ills – lack of health care, lack of treatment, things of that nature,” says Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., an outspoken critic of the War on Drugs. “If you’re white and wealthy, you get an opportunity to get a break, go home to your family and go into some kind of health care environment.”
But it’s often different for people of color, Watson Coleman says. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, prosecutors are “twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for Black people as for white people charged with the same offense.” And many people of color do time for possession alone: In 2016, there were more than 1.5 million drug arrests. More than 80% were for possession only.
Watson Coleman also points out that it’s far more expensive to pay to incarcerate someone than get them treatment. Rehab programs not only empower individuals, she says, but save communities money.
In early 2020, the Oregon Health Authority announced a 10-year plan to limit health inequities across the state. Measure 110 will be a crucial step in that fight, says Steve Allen, the behavioral health director at the authority OHA.
Helping addicts fight addiction means more than just straight drug rehab, he says – addiction is rarely an isolated event, as people struggling with it are typically juggling other crises including mental illness, physical or dental health care issues, and homelessness. Too many people spend too much of their lives cycling in and out of jails and emergency departments, Allen says, instead of getting the wraparound services they need. A move to take care of the whole individual will pay huge dividends.
“What we know is that punishment for addiction doesn’t work, and doesn’t improve outcomes for people,” Allen says. He points out that the law is going into effect at a critical time: Since the COVID-19 pandemic started in spring 2020, overdoses in Oregon have skyrocketed by 70%.
The program will be paid for by redistributing existing marijuana dollars that come from the state’s cannabis tax, which Allen calls “a huge advantage” because it likely won’t be dependent on whims of the local economy (marijuana funds have gone up recently, he noted).
Advocates hope other states will follow
Gullickson, who’s been sober since 2008 after a few detours, already sees a shift nationally in the conversation around addiction.
She points to the October 2020 presidential debate, when then-Democratic nominee Joe Biden said, “No one should be going to jail because they have a drug problem,” and expressed support for drug diversion programs. Having Biden in the White House now “makes a huge difference” Gullickson says.
Frederique at the Drug Policy Alliance agrees and says the Biden administration’s promise to bring science back to the White House will play an important role going forward.
“We need to ground our policies in science instead of stigma and punishment,” Frederique says
In 2018, as the House studied and voted on bills aimed at helping solve America’s opioid crisis, Watson Coleman introduced her own legislation that called for Congress to formally apologize for the War on Drugs and acknowledge the damage it had done to communities of color. It also called for future drug policy to be ground in “evidence-based health care solutions.”
The War on Drugs, Watson Coleman says, “was used as a weapon, as a tool to disrupt our communities. Particularly during the (Richard) Nixon era, it was a disguise to break up and weaken our communities … it wasn’t a war on drugs, it was a war on poor brown and Black men and women, and it did terrible things to families for generations.”
But she’s optimistic change is coming. So is Gullickson, who’s committed to helping in any and every way she can.
Now married and a grandmother of 17 – she’s slowly rebuilt relationships with almost all her children – Gullickson shares her story and all its warts because she wants others to know no matter how ugly or decimated their lives are now, something different is waiting for them.
She believes legislation like Measure 110 will create an environment where “instead of being somewhere accidentally and hoping someone will walk in and give you hope, we’re doing that proactively.” She knows it’ll take time to fully implement and there will be issues along the way. She also knows if it works, it could be implemented in other places and millions of other people like her, who once felt hopeless, alone and isolated could find something else, something good to live for.
“If we do this right in Oregon, I think there’s a will to do it everywhere,” she says. “We’ve got a huge responsibility to show that this is the right thing, and it can work.”