With Oregon facing rampant public drug use, lawmakers backpedal on pioneering decriminalization law

Jan 23, 2024, 1:17 PM

FILE - A person holds drug paraphernalia near the Washington Center building on SW Washington Stree...

FILE - A person holds drug paraphernalia near the Washington Center building on SW Washington Street, April 4, 2023, in downtown Portland, Ore. On Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, Democratic lawmakers in Oregon unveiled a sweeping new bill that would undo a key part of the state's first-in-the-nation drug decriminalization law. The bill would recriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs as a low-level misdemeanor. (Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP, File)

(Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP, File)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Democratic lawmakers in Oregon on Tuesday unveiled a sweeping new bill that would undo a key part of the state’s first-in-the-nation drug decriminalization law, a recognition that public opinion has soured on the measure amid rampant public drug use during the fentanyl crisis.

The bill would recriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs as a low-level misdemeanor, enabling police to confiscate them and crack down on their use on sidewalks and in parks, its authors said. It also aims to make it easier to prosecute dealers, to access addiction treatment medication, and to obtain and keep housing without facing discrimination for using that medication.

“It’s the compromise path, but also the best policy that we can come up with to make sure that we are continuing to keep communities safe and save lives,” state Sen. Kate Lieber, a Portland Democrat, told The Associated Press.

Voters passed the pioneering decriminalization law, Measure 110, with 58% support in 2020. But Democratic legislators who championed it as a way to treat addiction as a public health matter, not a crime, are now contending with one of the nation’s largest spikes in overdose deaths, along with intensifying pressure from Republicans and growing calls from a well-funded campaign group to overhaul it.

Researchers say it’s too soon to determine whether the law has contributed to the state’s deadly overdose surge, and supporters of the measure say the decades-long approach of arresting people for possessing and using drugs didn’t work.

The bill, unveiled by Lieber and other Democrats serving on a recently created committee on addiction, is set to be introduced during the legislative session that starts in February. The Legislature adjourned over the summer, but concern over the state’s drug crisis led Democrats to launch the committee in between sessions. Since September, the committee has held multiple hearings and heard testimony from law enforcement and substance use disorder experts on the law’s accomplishments and shortcomings.

Measure 110 directed the state’s cannabis tax revenue toward drug addiction treatment while decriminalizing “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.

Those caught with small amounts can have the citation dismissed by calling a 24-hour hotline to complete an addiction screening within 45 days, but those who don’t do a screening are not penalized for failing to pay the fine.

In the year after the law took effect in February 2021, only 1% of people who received citations for possession sought help via the hotline, state auditors found. As of last June, the hotline received on average of 10 calls per month that were related to citations.

Opponents of the law say it hasn’t created an incentive to seek treatment, a criticism the new bill seeks to address.

The measure’s details have yet to be finalized, but “personal use” possession of illegal drugs would become a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail or a $1,250 fine. The bill would not affect Oregon’s legalization of cannabis or psychedelic mushrooms.

Those arrested for small amounts would be referred by police to a peer support specialist to schedule an assessment or intervention. If the person shows up to the meeting, they wouldn’t be charged. If they don’t, the offense could be referred to the district attorney’s office.

If charges are filed, they could avoid jail by agreeing to certain conditions of probation, or by agreeing to have their case diverted to drug court, where judges place people in treatment programs rather than jail.

“We’re trying to give people off ramps while also introducing some accountability into the system,” Lieber said.

The bill would make it easier to prosecute people for selling drugs and create harsher penalties for doing so in parks and near homeless shelters and substance use disorder treatment centers.

Advocacy groups that have backed Oregon’s decriminalization law opposed recriminalizing “personal use” possession as a misdemeanor.

“When people have criminal records for addiction, they permanently exclude people from job opportunities. The legislature should delete the portions of the bill that impose criminal penalties and waste money and double down on increasing treatment funding,” Meli Rose, director of operations for Iron Tribe Network, a nonprofit that supports people in recovery, said in a statement.

The bill aims to expand access to treatment, particularly medications used to treat opioid addiction. It would allow doctors to prescribe such medication without prior approval or review from insurance companies, and make it easier for pharmacists to refill prescriptions in certain emergency situations.

Additionally, it would expand fair housing standards to protect people prescribed such medication from being discriminated against when trying to maintain or access long-term living facilities, such as permanent supportive housing for people exiting homelessness.

Lawmakers will have just 35 days to pass the bill once the legislative session starts on Feb. 5.

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With Oregon facing rampant public drug use, lawmakers backpedal on pioneering decriminalization law