Oregon’s first law that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine and other illicit drugs in favor of drug treatment is facing strong headwinds in the progressive state after an explosion of public drug use fueled by the proliferation of fentanyl and increased deaths from opioids, including those of children.
“The inability of people to go about their daily lives without being confronted with open drug use is so pressing on the minds of urban dwellers,” said John Horvick, vice president of the polling firm DHM Research. “It’s changed a lot of people’s perspective on what they think about Measure 110.”
When the law was approved by 58 percent of Oregon voters three years ago, supporters championed Measure 110 as a revolutionary approach that would transform addiction by minimizing penalties for drug use and instead investing in healing.
But even top Democratic lawmakers who supported the law, which will likely dominate the next legislative session, now say they are open to revisiting it after the largest increase in synthetic opioid-related deaths among states that have reported their numbers.
The cycle of addiction and homelessness caused by fentanyl is particularly visible in Portland, where it is not uncommon to see people committing suicide in broad daylight on the city’s busy streets.
“Everything is on the table,” said Democratic Sen. Kate Lieber, co-chair of a new joint legislative committee created to combat drug addiction. “We need to do something to ensure our streets are safer and we save lives. »
Measure 110 directed state cannabis tax revenue toward drug treatment services while decriminalizing possession of so-called “personal use” quantities of illicit drugs. Possession of less than one gram of heroin, for example, is punishable only by a ticket and a maximum fine of $100.
Those caught in possession of small amounts of drugs can have their tickets waived by calling a 24-hour hotline to complete a drug screening within 45 days, but those who do not screen do not are not penalized for non-payment of the fine. In the first year after the law took effect in February 2021, only 1% of people who received citations for possession sought help through the hotline, state auditors found.
Critics of the law say it doesn’t create an incentive to seek treatment.
Republican lawmakers urged Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek to call a special session to address the issue before the Legislature reconvenes in February. They proposed tougher penalties for possession and other drug offenses, such as requiring treatment and easing restrictions on detaining people under the influence in facilities such as hospitals. if they present a danger to themselves or to others.
“Treatment should be a requirement, not a suggestion,” a group of Republican state representatives said in a letter to Kotek.
Law enforcement officials who testified before the new legislative drug committee proposed reinstating drug possession as a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison or a $6,250 fine .
“We don’t believe a return to incarceration is the answer, but reinstating a (Class A) misdemeanor for possession with diversion opportunities is critically important,” said Police Chief Jason Edmiston from the small rural town of Hermiston in northeastern Oregon. told the committee.
However, data shows that decades of criminalization of possession have not deterred people from using drugs. In 2022, nearly 25 million Americans, or about 8% of the population, reported using illicit drugs other than marijuana in the past year, according to the annual report. National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Some lawmakers have suggested focusing on criminalizing public drug use rather than possession. Alex Kreit, an assistant professor of law at Northern Kentucky University and director of its Center on Drug Law and Policy, said such an approach could help reduce visible drug use on the streets of the city, but would not address what is widely seen as the root cause: homelessness.
“There are states that don’t have decriminalization and have the same difficult public health and law and order issues and just quality of life issues related to large-scale homeless populations in inner cities” , he said, citing California as an example. .
Supporters of Oregon’s approach say decriminalization isn’t necessarily to blame, as many other states with stricter drug laws have also reported an increase in fentanyl-related deaths.
But estimates According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exhibit, among states providing data, Oregon saw the largest increase in synthetic opioid overdose deaths when comparing 2019 and the 12-month period ending June 30, a 13-fold increase from 84 deaths to more. than 1,100.
Neighboring Washington state, which came in second, saw its estimated synthetic opioid overdose deaths increase sevenfold when comparing those same time periods, according to CDC data.
Nationally, overdose deaths from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl nearly doubled during this period. About two-thirds of all fatal overdoses in the United States in the 12 months ending June 30 involved synthetic opioids, according to federal data.
Supporters of the Oregon law say it faced a perfect storm of broader forces, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a mental health staffing shortage and the fentanyl crisis, which has will only come to a head after the law comes into force in early 2021.
A group of Oregon lawmakers recently visited Portugal, which decriminalized personal drug possession in 2001, to learn more about its policies. State Rep. Lily Morgan, the only Republican lawmaker on the trip, said Portugal’s approach was interesting but couldn’t necessarily be applied to Oregon.
“The most glaring difference is that they still don’t deal with fentanyl and methamphetamine,” she said, noting that the country also has a universal health care system.
Despite public perception, the law made some progress by directing $265 million in cannabis tax revenue to bolster the state’s new drug treatment infrastructure.
The law also created so-called behavioral health resource networks in each county, which provide care regardless of ability to pay. The networks allowed around 7,000 people to enter treatment between January and March of this year, double the almost 3,500 people between July and September 2022. status data is displayed.
The law’s funding was also critical for mental health and addiction service providers because it “created a sustainable, predictable funding home for services that never had that before,” Heather Jefferis said. , executive director of the Oregon Council for Behavioral Health, which represents such providers.
Horvick, the investigator, said public support for expanding treatment remains high despite resistance to the law.
“It would be a mistake to undo Act 110 now because I think that would set us back,” said Lieber, the Democratic state senator. “Simply repealing it will not solve our problem. Even if we didn’t have 110, we would still face significant problems.
Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill contributed from Philadelphia.
Claire Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-reported issues.