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How Oregon is tackling the drug crisis with new legislation

Oregon is facing a drug crisis that has claimed hundreds of lives due to fentanyl overdoses. In response, lawmakers are considering various proposals to change how police interact with people who possess small amounts of hard drugs, increase addiction treatment and fund residential facilities. The goal is to divert people from the criminal justice system and connect them with recovery services.

Measure 110 and its aftermath

In 2020, Oregon voters passed Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of hard drugs and redirected cannabis revenue to addiction services and programs. Instead of misdemeanor charges, the law imposed $110 citations that police say have not encouraged people to seek help. The measure also expanded services, but both sides agree that Oregon needs even greater access to treatment, have tougher penalties for drug dealers and increase prevention efforts.

Measure 110 was a historic reform that made Oregon the first state to decriminalize drug possession, but it also sparked controversy and criticism from some law enforcement officials, prosecutors and lawmakers who argued that it removed a key incentive for people to enter treatment and left a gap in the system.

How Oregon is tackling the drug crisis with new legislation

Democratic proposal for diversion programs

Under House Bill 4002, Democratic lawmakers want to enact a class C misdemeanor that carries up to 30 days in jail for drug possession. But someone could avoid the charge if they complete a diversion program, which includes a screening and showing up for at least one more follow-up appointment. Their proposal has other parts too, like expanding recovery housing and extending the welfare hold from 48 hours to 72 hours that allows authorities to hold an intoxicated person in a treatment or sobering center.

The idea behind the diversion or “deflection” programs is to let a police officer refer a person found with drugs to the program when they have probable cause to arrest or cite them for unlawful drug possession. If a law enforcement agency receives a written notice that someone has completed a deflection program, the agency would notify the district attorney, and police and prosecutors would seal all records related to the person’s participation in the program.

Community mental health programs, which exist in each of Oregon’s 36 counties, would coordinate the work, overseeing state grant funds and responsibility for the program’s certification with the state. The bill would make grants available for the programs, but the amount and the timeline are still unclear.

Republican proposal for stricter charges

But Republican lawmakers, who pitched their proposals, urged their Democratic colleagues who control both chambers to consider stricter misdemeanor charges for drug possession, among other differences. They argue that the class C misdemeanor proposed by the Democrats is too lenient and does not provide enough accountability or motivation for people to enter treatment.

Under Senate Bill 1540, Republican lawmakers want to create a class A misdemeanor that carries up to one year in jail and a $6,250 fine for drug possession. However, the charge could be reduced to a violation if the person completes a court-supervised diversion program that includes treatment, drug testing and community service. The bill also includes provisions to increase funding for drug courts, opioid treatment in jails and recovery housing.

The Republicans say that their proposal is more balanced and effective than Measure 110 or the Democratic bill, as it offers both a carrot and a stick for people who struggle with addiction. They also say that their proposal is more respectful of the will of the voters, as it does not repeal Measure 110 but rather modifies it.

Public testimony and perspectives

For nearly four hours on Wednesday, legislators on the Joint Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response listened as people shared their stories and pressed for urgent action. Many had heart-wrenching stories. A mother who lost her 25-year-old son to an overdose. A mayor remembering his 21-year-old goddaughter who died, and a Portland police officer, spilling tears, who watched as a 15-year-old boy died from a fentanyl overdose after not responding to emergency responders.

Dozens of people who testified in person and online pleaded with lawmakers not to return to criminal penalties and potential jail time – even when used as a means to encourage people to enter treatment. They said that criminalization does not work, and that it only stigmatizes, traumatizes and harms people who need help. They also said that treatment should be voluntary, accessible and compassionate, not coerced, limited and punitive.

Some of the people who testified were former drug users who had recovered from their addiction and now work as peer support specialists, counselors or advocates. They said that they were able to turn their lives around because they had access to treatment and recovery services, not because they faced criminal charges or jail time. They also said that they support Measure 110 and the expansion of services that it provides.

However, some of the people who testified were law enforcement officials, prosecutors or lawmakers who supported the Republican proposal and opposed the Democratic one. They said that the class C misdemeanor proposed by the Democrats is too weak and does not create enough leverage or consequences for people who possess drugs. They also said that the diversion programs proposed by the Democrats are too vague and unproven, and that they lack oversight and accountability.

They said that the class A misdemeanor proposed by the Republicans is more appropriate and realistic, as it reflects the seriousness of the drug crisis and the harm that drugs cause to individuals and communities. They also said that the diversion programs proposed by the Republicans are more structured and supervised, and that they offer more incentives and opportunities for people to enter treatment.

Next steps and challenges

The committee is expected to vote on the bills next week, and then send them to the floor for further debate and action. The committee co-chairs, Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, and Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, said that they are open to compromise and collaboration, but they also acknowledged the difficulty of finding a consensus on such a complex and contentious issue.

They said that they are committed to finding solutions that address the drug crisis in Oregon, which has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic and claimed more than 1,000 lives in 2020. They also said that they are mindful of the need to respect the will of the voters who passed Measure 110, but also to address the concerns and gaps that have emerged since its implementation.

They said that they are not expecting to solve the drug crisis immediately or with one legislative session, but rather to make progress and lay the groundwork for future reforms and investments. They said that they have long-term plans to extend into the 2025 session and beyond, and that they welcome input and feedback from all stakeholders and perspectives.


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