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States consider recriminalizing drugs


WORLD Radio - States consider recriminalizing drugs

Oregon may be among the first to backpedal on fentanyl

Co-founder Tanner Mariani looks over bags of marijuana buds that fill the showroom of the Portland Cannabis Market in Portland, Ore., on March 31, 2023. AP Photo/Eric Risberg

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 2nd of May, 2023. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Up first: rethinking drug laws.

Over the past decade, more than a half a dozen states have lowered penalties for drug possession even for drugs like crack cocaine and heroin. Supporters argue that lengthy prison sentences are too expensive costing states millions of dollars and failing to lower drug use or crime rates.

But then, the synthetic opioid fentanyl began taking over the drug scene.

FOX NEWS: New York City's Chief Medical examiner's office says drug overdoses now account for 80 to 85% of the city's accidental deaths, up from 60% in years past, and it blames fentanyl.

REICHARD: More than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2021, and fentanyl was responsible for over two-thirds of those deaths. And the numbers keep climbing.

Lawmakers in Oregon, Washington, and Nevada to name a few states are now considering upping the penalties for drug possession. In Oregon, a bill to raise the penalties for fentanyl possession passed the house back in February. If it becomes law, possessing anything more than 5 grams of fentanyl is a felony.

EICHER: That’s a reversal from three years ago when Oregon took off the books felonies for some forms of drug possession. WORLD’s Compassion Reporter Addie Offereins explains why.

ADDIE OFFEREINS: In November 2020, voters approved measure 110, and this decriminalized small amounts of illicit drugs like fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamines. And so this meant that if someone was caught with a small amount of these drugs, they could either pay a small $100 fine or call a hotline where they would complete a health evaluation and receive a referral to some kind of treatment and center. And proponents of the law wanted to start treating addiction and substance abuse as a health issue rather than a crime. They hope that this measure would get more people into treatment rather than landing them in prison.

EICHER: So far, the measure hasn’t delivered the intended results. While the number of drug arrests did fall, the number of citations issued to get violators on the path to treatment fell short of expectations.

OFFEREINS: The vast majority of those given a citation chose to pay the fine and didn't even call the hotline. And then those who did call the hotline many of those admitted to the person on the hotline that they were just calling to go through the motions, they were having their health evaluation done getting this referral to a treatment center, but had no intention of following through, and so most of those people didn't even enter treatment and so police didn't want to waste resources on citations that made little difference at all.

Even worse, the number of drug overdose deaths in Oregon jumped 30% just a year after the law went into effect. That’s twice as fast as the national average.

So what will it take to reduce overdose deaths? Some say that more decriminalization is necessary. Jeffrey Miron, vice president for research at the Cato Institute, says people in Oregon will keep dying from accidental overdoses until lawmakers legalize the production and distribution of the drug, not just the possession.

JEFFERY MIRON: So further criminalization of fentanyl will do absolutely nothing constructive to address the fundamental problem. Underground markets are violent, and they have terrible quality control. So there are more overdoses and accidental poisonings than if these substances were legal.

REICHARD: But others say authorities need to take the dangers of drugs more seriously. Dr. Eric Geisler is a board-certified addiction specialist and a member of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations.

ERIC GEISLER: I think there needs to be encouragement of law enforcement to arrest these people and have some consequences, whether it's just having drugs and paraphernalia removed and having to make a court appearance and be referred to treatment court, which I think is very effective.

While law enforcement is necessary, Geisler says felony convictions for possession go too far.

GEISLER: Sometimes people need to be incarcerated in order to protect themselves from themselves and the environment. But again, sometimes the felony, the felony follows them, they can't get apartments, they can't get jobs. And it's really disproportionate and really impairs their recovery.

Ministries serving recovering addicts in Oregon have seen the results of drug decriminalization first hand, and they hope the proposed law reverses some of the disastrous consequences of rampant drug use. Among them is Jason Bull, the executive director of the Medford Gospel Mission.

JASON BULL: Measure 110, it’s really taken drug use, from the alleys to public, and how we saw that, how we saw that visually here at the Medford Gospel Mission, our building is about 100 yards or less than 100 yards from a school. And as I was coming into work, I saw six individuals that were smoking methamphetamines out of a pipe, or out of pipes, on the side of our building. The real ironic thing is right on the other side of the wall, there are people that are in our program that's left that type of lifestyle, to be restored.

EICHER: While lawmakers consider tightening drug possession laws, WORLD’s Addie Offereins says that real solutions need to zoom out from focusing exclusively on the individuals possessing drugs.

OFFEREINS: What I realized in talking to a lot of different people about this issue is that substance abuse and addiction can't be seen as merely this personal problem, or this personal failing. This impacts communities. This impacts families. And this isn't about just someone's choice to be addicted to drugs or not.

Addie Offereins is WORLD’s Compassion beat reporter. If you’re interested in digging deeper, we’ve included a link to Addie’s article in today’s transcript.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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