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Oregon’s drug decriminalization law rolled back as homelessness, overdoses on the rise

todayMarch 12, 2024


ABC News

(Portland, Ore.) — Three years ago, Oregon decriminalized small amounts of illicit drugs, from fentanyl to methamphetamine to crack.

But some state leaders, local residents and others are having second thoughts about the law, which was passed following a 2020 voter-approved ballot initiative. Now cities like Portland have seen a surge in homeless people encamped in the streets using drugs.

“We’re out here every day and we write the same ticket. Some people, sometimes multiple times a day,” Portland Police Officer David Baer told ABC News.

As calls to reform the new law and to give police more authority over the situation continue to grow, some of the law’s advocates argue that more time is needed to correct a problem that has been compounding for a long time.

“What we know is that putting people in jail has never been an effective way to treat people with substance use disorder,” Haven Wheelock, the executive director of the Portland-based social services nonprofit Outside In, told ABC News.

Measure 110, was the first drug decriminalization measure in the country that affected harder drugs outside of marijuana and pushed for a health-based approach to fighting addiction versus arrests.

The law went into effect in February 2021 and established Behavioral Health Resource Networks (BHRNs), which is “an entity or group of entities working together to provide comprehensive, community-based services and supports to people with substance use disorders or harmful substance use,” according to the law.

The BHRNs have received state grants – over hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth – to help fund their initiatives.

People who are caught using drugs in the open are still liable for a possession of a controlled substance misdemeanor charge and $100 fine, but they are also provided with a card with a phone number for treatment options, according to Baer.

“So you call that number, do a health screening [and] my understanding is they’ll also pay the ticket for you,” he said.

However, after three years and over 7,600 drug violations, only about 200 calls to the number have been made, according to data from the state city.

The surge in open drug use has given way to concern from Oregon’s residents. The downtown of its most populated city has remained barren long after covid lockdown ended, increasingly dotted with homeless encampments.

Although outreach groups have been up and running for nearly three years, and have been on the streets providing outreach, many said they have struggles getting people to commit to their services.

Ricco Mejia, an outreach leader with the Behavioral Health Addiction Association of Oregon, one of the recipients of the state’s $264 million in grants, recently met with a homeless couple who were sleeping on the street and offered them a bed, new clothes and detox and outpatient treatment.

After they initially agreed to the offer, they had second thoughts.

“I believe we made a good human connection,” Meija, who himself is in recovery for drug addiction, told ABC News when asked if the couple’s rejection was discouraging.

Leaders from Multnomah County, which includes Portland, declared a state of emergency earlier this year over the drug problem as overdose deaths from opioids like fentanyl increased nearly 42% between 2022 and 2023, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The problem has caused many Oregon residents to reconsider Measure 110, which passed with 58% of the vote, according to election results.

An Emerson poll taken last year found that 64% of Oregonians supported rolling back part of the law, 56% wanted a total repeal and 54% of residents believed the law increased the presence of homeless in their communities.

State Rep. Kevin Mannix, (R), has been one of the staunchest opponents of the law and has contended that voters were misled.

“We think that law enforcement has to have the authority to intervene for those who are using hard drugs,” he told ABC News.

Oregon State Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber (D), one of the early supporters of Measure 110, told ABC News that the law was not a mistake and it needs more time for the system to work.

“We fundamentally haven’t figured out how to have the behavioral health system and the criminal justice system really talk to each other,” she said.

Proponents of Measure 110 have noted that the funding of recovery programs has been slow.

Oregon didn’t begin dispersing funds until May 2022.

But proponents of the program argued that when the money gets where it’s supposed to go, it can make an impact.

Dan Hood said he has been nine months sober from drugs such as heroin and meth after he started attending services provided by the clinic Recovery Works. Hood, who started using drugs in high school, said the practice of harm reduction, where a specialist will provide guidance for safer drug use, was a big step in getting him to get off drugs completely.

“The harm reduction allows you to open up and get closer with them,” Hood said. “The more you’re honest, the more you can get closer with them, the more they can help you.”

Hood has been sober for nine months, thanks to the help of Recovery Works, a Measure 110-funded clinic.. He is currently job hunting at the Measure 110-funded agency.

“When I see someone out on the street and suffering still, I just wish that they could find the help that they need,” Hood said. “It’s an example of what I don’t want to do or be like anymore.”

Wheelock, who has been advocating for more harm reduction services for decades, told ABC News that the state still needs more services and facilities if it is going to combat the addiction crisis.

She argued that people are blaming Measure 110 for problems that existed long before it was enacted.

“I don’t want to go back to watching people cycle in and out of jail, and their risk for overdose being so much higher when they get out than when they went in,” Wheelock said.

Still, state officials recently took action to address the public’s concerns.

Earlier this month, the state legislature voted to roll back parts of Measure 110, Governor Tina Kotek announced she will sign in the new law sometime this month.

Starting Sept. 1, police must either directly place drug users with treatment providers or bring them in front of a judge where they will be put on probation. Repeat offenders receive longer probation sentences and eventually may have to serve up to 180 days in jail.

Lieber, who led negotiations on the new bill, said the state needs more time to figure out how the new system can balance safety and helping those in need.

“I fundamentally believe, by criminalizing addiction, we are keeping people in a downward spiral. And yet, I do think that sometimes people need motivation to get into treatment in a way that the criminal justice system offers,” she said.

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