How Can Implementation of Oregon’s Drug-Decrim Law Improve?

    In November 2020, Oregon voters made history by passing Measure 110, to decriminalize personal possession of all drugs and shift more funding to vital services. The resulting law, the Drug Addiction Treatment Recovery Act (DATRA), has now been in effect for two years. In that time, it has prevented thousands of arrests and pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into treatment, support and resources. But implementation has not gone perfectly. So what still needs to be improved?

    To answer this, researchers at Comagine Health, a nonprofit consulting firm, partnered with the public health organization Vital Strategies. They surveyed different people responsible for implementing aspects of DATRA—including police officers, and health care and treatment providers—as well as people directly impacted by drug criminalization. They did this not only to identify areas for improvement in Oregon, but to inform other decriminalization efforts nationwide.

    “Learning from the successes and challenges of this effort is critical to informing similar developments.”

    “In the midst of the still-escalating national overdose crisis, Oregon has taken a bold and important step by ending the criminalization of people for drug use, potentially averting more than 7,000 arrests in the past two years, and investing instead in harm reduction and supportive services,” said Daliah Heller, vice president of drug use initiatives at Vital Strategies, in a press statement. “Learning from the successes and challenges of this effort is critical to informing similar developments, as other states and municipalities will follow in Oregon’s footsteps.”

    The new report found agreement among many respondents that the decriminalization aspects of the law need to improved. And while there is strong support for expanding services for people who use drugs, respondents want to see it become easier for providers to get the available funding.

    Under DATRA, you should never be arrested for low-level drug possession. Instead, police are meant to give you a Class E violation, which comes with a civil fine of no more than $100. To avoid paying the fine, you can get a needs screening through a helpline, where staff seek to figure out if you need help or services. You can then choose to be referred to treatment or services, but it’s never mandatory.

    Once you receive proof by mail that you got a screening within 45 days of your ticket, you can file that with the court and the fine is forgiven. If you don’t do anything, you get a “failure to appear” and the fine stays on file—but there are no further penalties if you don’t pay it.

    The researchers estimate that through this process, around 4,000 people are avoiding arrest each year. But the report noted big disparities in ticketing—a person living in rural Josephine County is 20 times more likely to get cited than someone in urban Multnomah County, seat of Portland.

    “Nobody bothered reaching out to people who use drugs to explain what the screening is.”

    One challenge has been communicating the process to people clearly. “Nobody bothered reaching out to people who use drugs to explain what the screening is,” one survey respondent said. “The mechanism of law enforcement giving out the hotline is flawed on many levels. Many didn’t get the number at all. Those that did, don’t understand that the screening is confidential and that there are no wrong answers.”

    Initially, the tickets themselves didn’t explain the whole process. Lines for Life, which is contracted to provide the statwide screening line, took responsibliity for educating the public and police officers. It produced business cards and flyers, but not everyone received those.

    The cards read: “Received a citation for drug possession? Call 503-575-3769 or 541-575-3679 24/7 to schedule a free, confidential screening. You can avoid paying the $100 fine by completing a free health screening with Lines for Life.”

    There are also other helpline numbers available: In addition to Lines for Life, regional “Behavioral Health Resource Networks” now offer local phone services. But some people were confused about why they should call a helpline, and whether their responses were confidential. If a police officer ticketed you for heroin possession then handed you a business card, you might well feel suspicious of calling the number and potentially implicating yourself. After completing the call and being recommended services, some respondents were also confused about whether services are mandatory (they’re not).

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the police officers who responded to the survey seemed to doubt the entire ticketing process and its usefulness. One said: “If you’re already feeling overworked and you’re already feeling like this isn’t going to do anything, you’re not going to write that Class E violation and then come back and do all the paperwork for it. You’re just not. It doesn’t do you any good.” Another argued that handing out tickets was premature in the absence of more substantial treatment infrastructure. 

    The responsibility to get a verification in the mail, then submit it to court to waive your fine means more steps that people could overlook, according to respondents—and is a major barrier for unhoused people or those without a permanent address. Lines for Life agreed that there should be a simple way for helpline providers to verify directly with courts, without impacted people having to take further action.

    As the survey responses make clear, the ticketing system is not the main goal of DATRA. The point is rather to stop arresting people and boost funding for services. Thanks to DATRA, Oregon has so far allocated $302 million to low-barrier substance use disorder treatment in every county—as well as harm reduction, peer support, housing and other services—through the regional Behavior Health Resource Networks.

    “Oregon ideally will shift more into this model of just expanded access to services … without that law enforcement component.”

    “The class E [violation] process is a transitional process, that’s in the model of a system that criminalizes substance use but without all the criminal penalties,” Dr. Danielle Good, a senior research associate at Comagine Health who worked on the report, told Filter.

    “Oregon ideally will shift more into this model of just expanded access to services,” she continued. “People can get services when they need them, they will reach out to the service providers directly, and the service providers will be reaching out to them directly—without that law enforcement component.”

    Survey respondents also had some criticisms relating to the expansion of services—mainly that state health officials didn’t help providers enough in applying for and distributing grant money, and that the complex process should be simplified.

    Despite all that, respondents on average supported seeing other states follow in Oregon’s footsteps, and considered the problems they identified “fixable,” according to the authors.

    “We were talking to decision-makers and people involved in the governing process,” Good said, “and the overarching recommendation was for other states to consider decriminalization and just to take lessons from how Oregon did it, so they can do it even stronger.”



    Photograph of Portland, Oregon by Aaron Brown via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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