Oregon reconsiders drug use decriminalization, after rising addiction

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It’s a common sight on the streets of downtown Portland, Oregon: people in front of stores, trendy restaurants, and hotels, on side-walks, corners, and benches, crouched over torch lighters held up to sheets of tinfoil or meth pipes.

Some drape blankets over their heads, or duck behind concrete barriers. Others don’t try to hide.

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“All summer long, we were right out in the open. You didn’t have to be paranoid anymore, you didn’t have to be worried about the cops,” said John Hood, a 61-year-old drug addict living on the streets of Oregon’s most populous city.

Hood spoke to Reuters on a downtown Portland corner, across from where he had just smoked fentanyl and methamphetamine outside an old bus station-turned homeless shelter.

“It was like smoking cigarettes. You just did it, and you didn’t have to worry about it. Now they’re cracking back down. They’re wanting to make it illegal.”

Oregonians in 2020 passed a ballot measure that created the most liberal drug law in the country, decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs and funneling hundreds of millions of dollars in cannabis taxes to addiction recovery services.

What’s known as Measure 110 was touted as a revolutionary approach, treating addiction as a public health matter, not a crime. The skepticism around it comes as cities across America are seeking solutions for a drug crisis. Nationally, the US drug overdose death toll crossed 100,000 for the first time in 2021, amid the medical care disruptions of COVID-19, increased mental health problems and the widespread availability of lethal drugs.

Under Measure 110, instead of arresting drug users, police issue them $100 citations along with a card that lists the number to a hotline for addiction treatment services, which they can call in exchange for help dismissing the citation. Those who simply ignore the citations face no legal ramifications. State data shows only 4 percent of people who receive citations call the hotline.

Now, facing public pressure amid a surge in overdose deaths, state lawmakers are preparing to vote on re-criminalization sometime during the session that started earlier this month.

Democrats, who are the statehouse majority, are pushing for a bill to make small-scale drug possession a low-level misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail, with the opportunity to seek treatment instead of facing charges.

‘Go back underground’

Measure 110 garnered support from 58 percent of voters, including 74 percent of voters in Portland’s Multnomah County. The law that resulted went into effect in February. According to an August survey by Emerson College, 56 percent of Oregonians support a total repeal of Measure 110; 64 percent support changes to the law.

“It became very, very obvious that what was happening on the streets of Portland, and what was happening on Main Street, Oregon, was unacceptable,” said state senate majority leader Kate Lieber, a Democrat who co-chairs the legislator’s addiction committee.

The proposed bill also carries harsher sentences for drug dealers, wider access to medication for opioid addiction, and expanded recovery and housing services along with drug prevention programs.

Republican lawmakers say the bill falls short. Their own proposals include up to a year in jail for drug possession, with the option for treatment and probation in lieu of jail time.

“We need serious penalties in order to make sure that people are getting into treatment, as opposed to staying on the street,” said state senate minority leader Tim Knopp.

Portland, a city of some 630,000 known for its coffee houses, bike paths, book shops, and breweries, has long grappled with homelessness. The COVID-19 pandemic saw a normally vibrant, bustling downtown eroded by business closures. Store fronts have been boarded up and camping tents and litter overtaken side-walks. Once the fentanyl crisis grabbed a foothold in Oregon in 2019, use of synthetic opioids exploded.

Tera Hurst, whose Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance focused on Measure 110’s implementation, does not believe the proposed changes will be effective.

“It’s not actually going to save lives or help people get into services. It’s going to create barriers to housing and employment, which is what criminal records do,” Hurst said.

Drug overdose deaths increased by a third in Oregon from 2019 to 2020, and another 44 percent in 2021, according to state figures. A New York University study found no notable connection between the new law and the rising number of overdoses; a University of Toronto study found the opposite.

Nationwide, drug overdose deaths rose 0.7 percent from 108,825 Americans in 2022 to more than 109,000 in 2023. Oregon’s increase over that period was 11 percent, putting it among seven states with double-digit percentage increases, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent annual figures.

Oregon’s Measure 110 funds were slow to be distributed to recovery programs, according to a state audit. The state’s drug treatment infrastructure was inadequate at the law’s onset. Federal data from 2020 ranked Oregon last in the nation for access to drug treatment, due to historic underinvestment.

If Measure 110 is repealed or changed, Hood anticipates he’ll keep using, albeit more discreetly.

“I’m going to go back underground and hide it, and just go back to the old ways. And just hope I don’t get caught,” he said. “I’m sure one day I’ll wake up and want to get some help.”

Read more: US says nations should engage China in curbing synthetic drugs

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