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The state of Oregon is facing increasing resistance to its law decriminalizing drugs, particularly in light of the ongoing fentanyl crisis.
Science & Health

The state of Oregon is facing increasing resistance to its law decriminalizing drugs, particularly in light of the ongoing fentanyl crisis.

Oregon was the first state to pass a law that made possession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine, and other illegal drugs a non-criminal offense. Instead, the focus shifted to providing addiction treatment. However, this progressive approach is now facing challenges in the state due to an increase in public drug use, particularly fueled by the dangerous drug fentanyl, and a rise in opioid-related deaths, including among children.

John Horvick, vice president of polling firm DHM Research, stated that the constant presence of open-air drug use in daily life is a major concern for urban residents. This has significantly influenced their views on Measure 110.

In Oregon, 58% of voters passed a law three years ago that was praised by advocates of Measure 110 for its innovative approach to addressing addiction. The law reduces penalties for drug use and focuses on investing in recovery instead.

However, prominent Democratic politicians who supported the legislation, which is expected to be a major focus of the upcoming legislative session, are willing to reconsider it in light of the significant rise in synthetic opioid-related deaths in states that have disclosed their data.

The pattern of being addicted to and homeless due to fentanyl is most noticeable in Portland, where it’s not uncommon to witness individuals openly using it during the day on bustling city roads.

Democratic state Senator Kate Lieber, who is co-chair of a newly formed joint legislative committee focused on addressing addiction, stated, “All options are being considered. Our top priority is finding a solution to create safer streets and save lives.”

Measure 110 directed the state’s cannabis tax revenue toward drug addiction treatment services while decriminalizing the possession of so-called “personal use” amounts of illicit drugs. Possession of under a gram of heroin, for example, is only subject to a ticket and a maximum fine of $100.

FILE - A person smokes fentanyl on April 12, 2023, in downtown Portland, Ore.

On April 12, 2023, in downtown Portland, Oregon, an individual was observed smoking fentanyl.

Individuals found with small quantities of drugs can have their citation dropped by contacting a 24-hour hotline and undergoing an addiction evaluation within 45 days. However, failure to complete the evaluation does not result in a penalty for not paying the fine. According to state auditors, in the initial year of the law’s implementation in February 2021, only 1% of those who received citations for possession utilized the hotline for assistance.

Those who oppose the law argue that it does not encourage individuals to seek treatment.

Republican legislators are pressing Democratic Governor Tina Kotek to convene a special session and tackle the issue before the Legislature gathers again in February. They have suggested stricter penalties for possession and other drug-related crimes, including mandatory rehabilitation and loosening limitations on detaining individuals under the influence in places like hospitals if they present a threat to themselves or others.

A group of Republican state representatives wrote a letter to Kotek stating that treatment should be mandatory, not merely recommended.

Police officers who have given testimony to the recently formed legislative committee on substance abuse have suggested reinstating drug possession as a class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison or a fine of $6,250.

Jason Edmiston, the chief of police in the rural city of Hermiston in northeast Oregon, stated to the committee that while they do not support incarceration as a solution, it is crucial to reinstate a (class A) misdemeanor charge for possession with the option for diversion.

Although possession of drugs has been criminalized for many years, the data indicates that it has not been effective in deterring drug use. According to the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 8% of the American population, which is equivalent to about 25 million people, disclosed using illegal drugs other than marijuana within the last year.

Certain politicians have proposed shifting the focus to making public drug use a criminal offense instead of possession. According to Alex Kreit, who is an assistant professor of law at Northern Kentucky University and also heads its Center on Addiction Law and Policy, this strategy may decrease the prevalence of obvious drug use in urban areas, but it fails to address the underlying issue of homelessness that is often associated with drug use.

He mentioned California as an example, stating that some states without decriminalization also face challenges with public health, public order, and quality-of-life due to significant homeless populations in downtown areas.

Supporters of Oregon’s method argue that decriminalization may not be the sole factor responsible, as numerous other states with more stringent drug regulations have also observed rises in fentanyl-related fatalities.

FILE - A man prepares to smoke fentanyl on a park bench in downtown Portland, Ore., May 18, 2023.

A person is getting ready to use fentanyl while sitting on a bench in downtown Portland, Oregon on May 18, 2023.

According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when comparing data from 2019 and the 12-month period ending on June 30, Oregon had the largest increase in fatalities due to synthetic opioid overdoses among all states reporting. The number of deaths rose from 84 to over 1,100, a thirteen-fold increase.

According to CDC data, the state of Washington, which is located nearby, had the second highest number of synthetic opioid overdose deaths, with a seven-fold increase between the two time periods.

Across the country, there was a significant increase in fatalities due to synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, during that period. Approximately two-thirds of all fatal drug overdoses in the United States between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020 were caused by synthetic opioids, according to data from the federal government.

Advocates of the Oregon legislation argue that it faced a combination of significant challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, a shortage of mental health professionals, and the emergence of the fentanyl crisis. These issues did not intensify until after the law went into effect in early 2021.

A delegation of legislators from Oregon recently went to Portugal, where the possession of drugs for personal use was decriminalized in 2001, to gain a deeper understanding of their policy. State Representative Lily Morgan, the sole Republican representative on the trip, found Portugal’s approach intriguing but noted that it may not be applicable to Oregon.

She pointed out that the most obvious distinction is their failure to address fentanyl and meth, despite having universal health care.

Contrary to popular belief, the law has shown improvement by allocating $265 million in cannabis tax revenue to establish the state’s new addiction treatment system.

The legislation also established Behavioral Health Resource Networks in each county, offering treatment regardless of financial means. According to state data, these networks have facilitated treatment for approximately 7,000 individuals between January and March of this year, a notable increase from the previous quarter’s 3,500 individuals in treatment from July through September 2022.

Heather Jefferis, executive director of the Oregon Council for Behavioral Health, stated that the law’s funding has played a crucial role in supporting mental health and addiction service providers. It has provided them with a stable and consistent source of funding, which was previously lacking.

According to Horvick, the pollster, there is still strong public support for the expansion of treatment, even though there has been resistance to the law.

Lieber, the state senator from the Democratic party, stated that it would be unwise to revoke 110 at this time as it would hinder our progress. Merely abolishing the law will not resolve our issue, as even without 110 in place, we would still face significant challenges.