Turning the tide on the overdose crisis | WORLD
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Turning the tide on the overdose crisis


WORLD Radio - Turning the tide on the overdose crisis

Oregon lawmakers take steps to end the decriminalization of drugs

A person on the street in downtown Portland, Oregon Getty Images / Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the failure of permissive drug laws.

Just weeks ago, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek promised to sign legislation to re-establish penalties for possessing hard drugs.

About four years ago, nearly six in 10 Oregonians approved a measure that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of fentanyl and methamphetamine.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: But fatal overdoses have skyrocketed in Oregon and state leaders are under intense public pressure to crack down.

Here’s WORLD Radio’s Mary Muncy.

JUANITA SWARTWOOD: My name is Juanita Swartwood and I live in the Lents neighborhood in southeast Portland and I urge you to approve HB 4002 for my family, for my neighborhood, and for the state we all love.

MARY MUNCY: Back in February, Oregon lawmakers heard about four hours of public testimony from residents, nonprofits, and law enforcement organizations. The topic at hand? A bill that would reverse course on a law that decriminalized some drugs about three years ago.

SWARTWOOD: I am the grandmother of a beautiful young woman who is working hard as we speak to overcome her addiction to drugs. Measure 110 didn’t cause her addiction, but decriminalizing hard drugs, normalizing their use, and acceptance didn’t help.

So what went wrong with Measure 110?

Well, under the policy, individuals cited for possessing drugs like fentanyl or heroin could choose between two options: pay a $100 fine or call a hotline to get connected with a recovery center for an evaluation and treatment referral. The goal was to get addicts the help they need, instead of sending them to jail.

But in the first year after voters approved the measure, less than 1 percent of people ticketed by police accessed treatment services. Most chose to pay the fine and continue using drugs. And that had serious consequences.

MATT SCALES: Our communities are crying out for help.

The president of the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police Matt Scales testified at the Senate hearing in February.

SCALES: Oregon’s drug addiction and fentanyl overdose crisis is destroying lives, devastating families, and eroding the safety and livability of our communities.

According to the CDC, fatal overdoses in Oregon jumped by more than 70 percent between 2020 and 2022. Meanwhile, nationwide overdose deaths rose less than 20 percent.

SCALES: There isn’t a community anywhere in the state that isn’t significantly impacted by the crisis and Oregonians are angry about what they see …1,650 Oregonians tragically lost their lives to drug overdoses between September 2022 and September 2023. These are our family members, our friends, our community members.

As overdoses climbed, support for decriminalizing drugs plummeted. A poll commissioned last year by the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions found nearly two-thirds of Oregonians wanted to repeal parts of Measure 110. They also blamed the initiative for increases in homelessness and violent crime.

JORDAN DAVIDSON: When you're creating a culture where people are just allowed to use drugs freely, with really no consequences, you have to think from the perspective of an active drug addict.

Jordan Davidson is the foundation’s government affairs manager. He says until a user hits rock bottom, they’re not thinking about getting better, they’re thinking about where to get their next hit.

DAVIDSON: We need to meet people where they are, but not leave them where they're at. Because there are people who are on the brink of death. And we need to do whatever we can to pull them back.

Lawmakers say this new bill would do that by putting the decision of whether a user should get rehabilitation or jail time back in the hands of the court.

If the governor signs it, the new law will make possessing small amounts of illicit drugs an unclassified misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. Counties can decide whether to prosecute offenders or divert them to a program involving probation and treatment.

If an offender completes one of these diversion programs, they can expunge or remove the misdemeanor from their record. So far 23 out of 36 counties have indicated they will adopt diversion programs.

Here’s Davidson again:

DAVIDSON: I think there are some things in the bill that maybe we wouldn't think could go far enough. But this is a compromise bill, right? It's something that legislators were able to agree on. And I think it's an extraordinary and necessary step in the right direction.

But some Oregon lawmakers worry that the bill is a half-measure that spends too much on Democrat priorities. That includes State Rep. Dwayne Yunker, one of three Republicans who voted against the bill in the House.

DWAYNE YUNKER: The Republicans had 18 amendments for this bill, and not one of those 18 amendments were ever considered. People read the top line: re-criminalization of drugs. But what they don't read is the other 80 pages of where this money is going and who they're supporting.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp wasn’t completely satisfied with the final product either, but he says it’s a necessary step in a long journey.

TIM KNOPP: At some point you need to turn the tide and I think we have hope now that the tide has turned and the public is now with us on re-criminalization and making sure that this drug experiment of decriminalizing drugs is over in Oregon.

With reporting from WORLD's Addie Offereins, I'm Mary Muncy.

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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