Oregon ends decriminalization of drugs, joins Washington in pushing jail or treatment

Apr 2, 2024, 5:41 PM

oregon drug possession...

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek listens during a walking tour, Feb. 13, 2024, in Vancouver, Wash. Kotek has signed into law a bill that recriminalizes the possession of small amounts of drugs, Monday, April 1, 2024. (File Photo: Jenny Kane, The Associated Press)

(File Photo: Jenny Kane, The Associated Press)

Possession of small amounts of hard drugs is illegal in Oregon once again. It marks the end of a three-year decriminalization effort critics called a “massive failure” that led to a surge in overdose deaths statewide.

Oregon Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek signed the legislation Monday. It rolls back a 2020 voter-approved measure that made so-called “personal use possession” of illicit drugs including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Under the now-defunct law, having those drugs was only punishable by a ticket and a maximum fine of $100.

Now, possession is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail. But the law also establishes ways for treatment to be offered as an alternative to criminal penalties. It encourages law enforcement agencies to create deflection programs that would divert people to addiction and mental health services instead of the criminal justice system.

Wash. drug possession laws: Legislature passes drug law with modified gross misdemeanor

In a signing letter, Kotek said the law’s success will depend on “deep coordination” between courts, police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and local mental health providers. She described them as “necessary partners to achieve the vision for this legislation.”

Oregon’s unique approach to stemming addiction to drugs

Measure 110 was passed by voters with 58% support in 2020. Supporters said treatment is more effective than jail in helping people overcome addiction. They argued the decades-long approach of arresting people for possessing and using drugs hasn’t worked.

The law directed hundreds of millions of dollars of the state’s cannabis tax revenue toward addiction services. But the money was slow to get out the door. Health authorities, already grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, struggled to prop up the new treatment system, state auditors found.

Another setback was the lack of people with substance abuse disorders who sought help after being ticketed for drug possession. Those caught with small amounts of drugs could 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.

A state audit found that the first year after the new approach took effect in February 2021, only 1% of people who received citations for possessing controlled substances sought help via the new hotline.

At the same time, Oregon saw an explosion of public drug use fueled by fentanyl and a surge in deaths from opioids, including those of children. The cycle of addiction and homelessness spurred by fentanyl was most visible in Portland, where it’s not unusual to see people shooting up in broad daylight on busy city streets. In January, Kotek joined local officials in declaring a fentanyl state of emergency in the downtown area of the city.

Backers of Oregon’s approach say decriminalization isn’t necessarily to blame. They pointed out many other states with stricter drug laws have also reported increases in fentanyl deaths.

But mounting pressures prompted Oregon Democrats to shift their stance on decriminalization policy in recent months.

Some who, historically, supported the measure voted for the new law during this year’s short legislative session. Other Democratic lawmakers opposed it, concerned it would result in more arrests and exacerbate social inequities. It ultimately passed the Democratic-controlled legislature last month.

Republican leaders had long sought to overhaul Measure 110. After Kotek’s signing, House Minority Leader Jeff Helfrich said the law illustrated how Republicans “stood united and forced Democrats” to restore criminal penalties.

The changes take effect Sept. 1.

Oregon, Washington fighting drug addiction with mixed approach

Estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show, among the states reporting data, Oregon had the highest increase in synthetic opioid overdose fatalities when comparing 2019 and the 12-month period between Jun. 2022-23. It amounted to a 13-fold surge from 84 deaths to more than 1,100. Among the next highest was neighboring Washington, which saw its estimated synthetic opioid overdose deaths increase seven-fold when comparing those same time periods, CDC data shows.

Washington narrowly avoided decriminalizing drugs statewide last year. Democratic and Republican lawmakers heatedly sparred over how substance use disorder should be handled by the criminal justice system. With the existing law set to expire in July, Gov. Jay Inslee was forced to call a special session after the legislature adjourned without an approved bill.

The law that ended up passing struck a compromise. It increased criminal penalties for drug possession, upping it to a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail for the first two offenses and up to a year after that. But it also encouraged police and prosecutors to divert cases for treatment or other services, and invested tens of millions of dollars in diversion programs

Under the law, the sale of drug paraphernalia, such as glass tubes for smoking fentanyl, is a civil infraction. But possession of those items is not banned. Additionally, public health programs are allowed to distribute such materials, as well as test strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl or other substances in drugs.

The law also allows cities and counties to ban drug paraphernalia and regulate recovery residences and harm-reduction programs. That includes such as those that provide methadone or other medication to treat addiction.

Previous coverage from Oregon: After GOP walkout, Oregon lawmakers reconvene to focus on housing and drugs

Fighting fentanyl with funding

The success of both Oregon and Washington’s approaches may hinge partly on how much money state officials are willing to throw at the growing drug crisis.

Oregon’s new law will put $211 million towards a variety of court and treatment programs. Listed in the legislation are new and expanded residential treatment facilities and recovery houses. Counties can optionally set up deflection programs that people can participate in to avoid jail and criminal charges. So far, 23 of Oregon’s 36 counties have signed on.

In Washington, the statute passed in 2023 provided $44 million for investments that include methadone mobile units, crisis centers and short-term housing for people with substance-use disorders.

Local jurisdictions are similarly jumping in to try to stem the deadly flow of drugs in communities. Last July, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced $27 million in investments to combat the opioid crisis in the city. Others, including Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, have announced similar efforts.

In the fight against drug use, particularly fentanyl, the stakes are only increasing. Some lawmakers say Washington’s policies don’t go far enough, and have led to deadly consequences. That claim, in particular, got attention after a 3-week-old baby in Port Townsend died earlier this year in the custody of his father, a known drug user. That case and others have reignited scrutiny of a state law passed last year. It states poverty or substance abuse by themselves do not constitute “imminent physical harm” to a child that would allow state agencies to remove them from the home.

On the federal level, U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier and other members of Washington’s congressional delegation continue to push for fentanyl to be designated as a Schedule 1 drug, classified as those with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Last month, Inslee signed a group of bills that included more than $50 million in new funding for drug treatment services, recovery support, opioid education and naloxone in schools and increased emergency response measures.

“Fentanyl is a scourge in the state of Washington,” Inslee said at the time. “It is the nuclear weapon of opiates.”

A sentiment echoed by Kotek as both states struggle to find a solution that works against the opioid and fentanyl epidemic.

“Our country and our state have never seen a drug this deadly and addictive, and all are grappling with how to respond,” she said in a news release, calling the new law a “roadmap for next steps.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

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