Despite skyrocketing overdose rates, Oregon must ‘stay the course’ in soft heroin laws: drug law advocates

Oregon’s first statewide drug decriminalization measure has come under close scrutiny since voters adopted it two years ago, but as state funding finally finds its way to addiction service providers, advocates say they’re starting to see results.

“It’s going to be a long time before we fully realize what’s happening,” said Hannah Studer, associate director of the behavioral health nonprofit, Bridges to Change. “We have to stay the course because this is a matter of life and death and this is really building a whole new future for the state that the state deserves.”

Measure 110 was passed in 2020 with 58% of the vote. It decriminalized the possession of quantities of hard drugs for personal use, including heroin, meth and fentanyl, and redirected a significant portion of the state’s marijuana tax revenues — which previously went to schools, the police and other local governments — to grants for addiction services finance.

But critics accuse the law of fueling addiction and crime in parts of the state, particularly Portland, and the measure became a hot topic in this year’s gubernatorial campaign.

“It’s worked well for the drug dealers and drug users because we have an open-air drug market,” said David Potts, chair of the Lents Neighborhood Livability Association.

Portland Police Association President Aaron Schmautz told Fox News in September that police didn’t want to see “mass incarceration as a result of low-level drug use” and that treatment should be a priority.

A heroin user prepares to inject himself March 23, 2016 in New London, CT.
Critics accuse the law of fueling addiction and crime in parts of the state, particularly Portland.
Getty Images

“But you need bite for that,” said Schmautz. “There has to be a way to demand this treatment.”

Drug possession is now a Class E violation, punishable by a maximum fine of $100, which people can waive if they call a hotline and complete a treatment evaluation. Oregon Health & Science University’s director of addiction medicine, Dr. Todd Korthuis said few people call the hotline and most only do so to forego their appeal.

“Only 1% of those who filed drug possession tickets requested information about treatment resources,” he told a state Senate committee earlier this year. “In my discussions with treatment directors across the state, no patient has signed up for treatment based on these tickets.”

Of 3,645 subpoenas issued through November, 68% ended in convictions because the suspect failed to appear in court, according to the Oregon Department of Justice.

Ron Williams, director of public affairs for the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, which advocates for Action 110, is not concerned about the lack of participation and thinks people should be able to access recovery services on their own terms.

“There is very little evidence that involuntary treatment works,” Williams said. “Most people who use drugs recreationally don’t think they have a problem and therefore don’t think they need treatment. So why would you force her into treatment?”

A tourniquet flies off the arm of a 28-year-old man who has just injected heroin.
A tourniquet flies from the arm of a 28-year-old man who just injected heroin in Portland, Oregon.
Portland Press Herald via Getty

The slow implementation of the measure was also a concern. While decriminalization went into effect on February 1, 2021, the state didn’t approve most of the grants until late August of this year.

“We know that there have been delays on the part of the state in getting funds to the providers,” said Studer. “However, we now have the resources and can really begin to provide the services that are sorely needed in Oregon.”

The state has now awarded $302 million in grants for harm reduction, overdose prevention, recreational housing and more. In most cases, it can’t be used for residential inpatient treatments, which are primarily funded by Medicaid, Williams said.

Bridges to Change received about $12.5 million, which Studer said has saved one of their programs that was nearing completion due to lack of funding and will allow them to hire dozens more employees and fund 202 new beds.

“Women in our women’s residential programs who can have a safe place for themselves and their children,” Studer said. “People in the more rural parts of Clackamas [County] who could never get access to public housing, who have now paid for public housing to live as long as they need.”

But Oregon’s addiction rate is still among the highest in the country.

“We’ve seen an increase in overdose,” Schmautz said. “We have a huge epidemic of fentanyl and other drugs in our community.”

Drug overdose deaths have increased nationwide since early 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Williams argued that Oregon’s rise in overdose deaths remains below the West Coast average, so it’s unfair to blame Measure 110.

“Drug use should not be a crime. It’s a health issue,” Williams said. “The idea behind this is to move away from a criminal justice approach and towards a health-related, science-based and health-based approach.”

Notes: Preliminary counts for 12-month periods ending in July of each year (most recent month for which data were available). The projected preliminary numbers represent estimates of the number of deaths adjusted for incomplete reports.

Schmautz agreed that addiction is a medical problem, but attributed many of the “societal ills” Portland struggles with to addiction.

“Homelessness that’s through the roof, mental illness … low-level crime and then even murders and other things,” he said.

Williams said it wasn’t fair to blame rising crime on Measure 110 because the only thing the law legalizes is personal use of drugs.

“Stealing is still a crime. Driving is still a crime. Burglary is still a crime,” Williams said. “Homelessness, crime, those problems existed before the 110 vote and they were increasing before the 110 vote.”

For decades, police have used suspected drug possession as an excuse to stop and search people, Williams said.

“Around the country these people were black and brown,” he said. “So this species reduces … these negative effects on people in communities of color. And it transforms the nature of substance use from something you punish to something you service.”

Overall, Studer encouraged patience among Oregonians, who they felt deserved better than the old-school approach to addiction.

“It’s going to take time to earn something better,” she said. Despite skyrocketing overdose rates, Oregon must ‘stay the course’ in soft heroin laws: drug law advocates


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