Oregon lawmakers roll back nation’s most permissive drug law | WORLD
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Oregon lawmakers roll back nation’s most permissive drug law

Fatal overdoses have skyrocketed in the Beaver State

Oregon governor Tina Kotek Associated Press/Photo by Jenny Kane, File

Oregon lawmakers roll back nation’s most permissive drug law

Summer Little League teams in Grants Pass, Ore., can’t use public ballparks unless volunteers first scour the area for needles, said Brian Bouteller, executive director of the Grants Pass Gospel Rescue Mission. In his 14 years at the mission, he’s witnessed a lot of change, but he says nothing compares to the chaos brought on after the state decriminalized illicit drugs more than three years ago.

“Our parks have become havens of rampant drug use and human trafficking,” Bouteller said. “We’re a very compassionate and caring community. But now, we have no tools to deal with this.”

With hard drugs so easily accessible and scarcely any consequences at stake, fewer individuals are checking into the mission, Bouteller said. A growing number fatally overdose soon after they leave. “It’s amazing, the kind of trauma that rattles through a gospel rescue mission,” he said, shaking his head. “We’re a small community—it’s heartbreaking to see these kinds of things happen.”

Last week, the Oregon legislature approved a bill that unravels key aspects of a 2020 ballot measure that decriminalized drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine. The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 21-8 on Friday after the House approved the measure with a 51-7 vote. But some advocates say the new measure doesn’t go far enough, while others worry the bill will entrap addicts in need of treatment in the criminal justice system.

The bill makes possessing small amounts of illicit drugs a misdemeanor punishable by up to about six months in jail. It enables police to confiscate drugs and crack down on public use in parks and city streets. If counties adopt the deflection programs outlined under the bill, offenders can avoid time behind bars by honoring the terms of an 18-month probation. Violations would result in a 30-day stint in jail. If their probation is revoked, an individual would be released into a treatment program or incarcerated for 180 days. Offenders can forgo probation and request a 180-day jail sentence directly.

The bill undoes much of what Measure 110 legalized more than three years ago. Over 58 percent of Oregon voters approved Measure 110 in November 2020. Instead of getting booked into jail, individuals cited for possessing drugs like fentanyl or heroin could choose between paying a $100 fine or calling a hotline to get connected with a recovery center for an evaluation and referral for treatment. In the first year after voters OK’d the measure, less than 1 percent of people ticketed by police accessed treatment services, choosing to pay the fine and continue using drugs.

“We’ve seen a sharp increase in overdose deaths since Measure 110 was passed,” said Jordan Davidson, who manages government affairs for the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions, an organization that opposes decriminalization. Overdose deaths in the state jumped by more than 70 percent between 2020 and 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while fatal overdoses increased 18 percent nationally over that same period.

Proponents of Measure 110 argued it would reduce the overall drug crisis since more people in the grip of addiction would get the treatment they needed instead of languishing in jail.

“We’ve had Measure 110 for around four years now. And we should have seen a reduction in these numbers,” Davidson argued. “When you have a culture of normalization for drug use, that will encourage other people to begin drug use. And it will encourage people to continue.”

Marc Levin, chief policy counsel for the Council on Criminal Justice, said conflicting studies make it difficult to untangle the data. “It’s clear that the number of fatal overdoses increased in Oregon following this,” he said, “But they also increased throughout the rest of the country.” He noted that a lack of treatment infrastructure and the COVID-19 pandemic also contributed to the uptick, but agreed that the measure “didn’t really have much in the way of teeth to draw people into treatment.”

As overdoses climbed, support for decriminalization plummeted. An August 2023 poll commissioned by the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions found nearly two-thirds of Oregonians wanted to repeal parts of Measure 110 and blamed the initiative for increasing homelessness and violent crime.

“What it led to was a significant increase in people on drugs, drug tourism, people coming to Oregon just to do drugs,” said Oregon Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, a Republican. Though Knopp wasn’t completely satisfied with last week’s final product, he said it’s a big step forward. After the vote, he called the bill a win for Oregonians: “I think the public was overwhelmingly with us in that effort.”

The measure received strong support from county attorneys and law enforcement groups. “This proposed bill . . . will provide the public safety our constituents expect and will make a significant difference in the addiction crisis in our state,” Hood River County Sheriff Matt English, a board member for the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association, testified during a hearing on the bill.

Mike Schmidt, the county district attorney for Multnomah County, the state’s most populous county, also testified in favor of the bill. He told lawmakers it is common for Portland residents to see people using hard drugs in front of businesses, parks, and schools. “We absolutely cannot continue to tolerate this. We can approach addiction as the health issue it is, while also holding people accountable for how they impact our community,” he said.

Critics worry the bill will crowd county jails and overburden the states’ legal system. The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission warned that the harsher penalties would lead to a surge in criminal convictions and disproportionately affect people of color.

But Levin with the Council on Criminal Justice said the deflection programs built into the bill, shored up by the threat of jail time, have a better chance of getting addicts into treatment than Measure 110. An individual can expunge a misdemeanor from their record if they successfully complete a deflection program. Their record will be automatically expunged or sealed two years after citation without conviction or three years after conviction.

Counties can refuse to adopt deflection measures, and rural areas have fewer accessible treatment services for offenders. “So I think the biggest concern will probably be the disparities,” Levin said. But he’s hopeful most counties will take advantage of the alternative provisions to incarceration built into the bill. As of last Tuesday, 23 out of 36 counties had submitted letters indicating their commitment to establish diversion programs.

“I think this has a decent potential to get people the help they need, without leading to unnecessary incarceration and the stigmatization in terms of future life,” said Levin.

Bouteller at the Grants Pass Gospel Rescue Mission noted that expecting addicts to voluntarily seek treatment misunderstands the nature of addiction. “We who are not drug users have this relatively naive idea that everybody wants the same thing, that they want to get clean,” he said, adding that it sometimes takes an uncomfortable alternative to motivate an individual into recovery.

Jason Bull directs the Medford Gospel Mission, a residential homeless ministry about 30 miles southeast of Grants Pass. He celebrated when he saw the bill made it through the legislature last week. “As Christians, our ministry perspective is that people can change. People don’t have to be stuck,” Bull said, adding that jail time and probation can be key components of that change. The mission sends a female and male employee into county jails at least once a month to work with the chaplain and let inmates know they can join their program once they’re released.

Republican State Rep. Dwayne Yunker, who represents an area that includes Grants Pass, voted against last week’s bill. He argued the legislation didn’t go far enough.

“There was a lot of pressure from the voters to overturn Measure 110,” Yunker said. “And there was also push from law enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Administration to do something.” But he said none of the 18 amendments Republicans proposed were considered, including an amendment that would have allowed parents to compel their children into treatment. Yunker also worries the measure allocated too much funding to liberal nonprofits that support the Democratic Party. “I couldn’t bring myself to agree to something that I knew was a fake fix for Oregon,” he said.

Though Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek declined to say whether or not she supports the bill, she signaled she is open to increasing penalties for drug possession. If Kotek signs the legislation, it will take effect Sept 1. Lawmakers also passed a companion bill allocating $211 million to behavioral health and treatment services. 

Davidson with the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions applauds the bill. “I think it’s an extraordinary and necessary step in the right direction … There are some people who might be on the brink of death, but might not be theoretically ready to accept recovery,” he said. “We need to meet people where they are, but not leave them where they’re at.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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