Oregon Democrats Unveil Bill to Roll Back Drug Decriminalization

    A bill in Oregon, backed by Democratic lawmakers, would overturn critical aspects of Measure 110. The ballot initiative, approved by Oregon’s voters in 2020, decriminalized low-level drug possession, while boosting funding for treatment, harm reduction and social services. If the bill’s sponsors—and the Republicans, cops and businesspeople supporting comparable moves—get their way, people caught with small amounts of drugs could once again be jailed, rather than offered support.

    Democrats in the state Senate plan to introduce the bill in the new legislative session in February, the Associated Press reported. It would recriminalize low-level drug possession, making it a misdemeanor charge subject to up to 30 days in jail or a fine of $1,250. If arrested, you would be referred to an assessment to determine whether you need treatment. The charge would be waived if you attend your assessment; if not, you’d be prosecuted. People charged under the law could avoid jail by agreeing to probation, or by going to drug court to be mandated into treatment.

    The bill also seeks to facilitate more prosecutions of people who sell drugs, adding harsher penalties for doing so in certain locations, such as parks. Other provisions aim to make it easier to get medications for opioid use disorder—by removing prior authorization requirements and allowing scripts to be refilled faster—and to protect people on such medication from housing discrimination. But Democrats have yet to unveil the bill’s text, which would clarify details such as what would constitute “personal possession” quantities of different drugs.

    The new bill is “the compromise path,” said Sen. Kate Lieber, one of the Democrats supporting it.

    Under Measure 110, which took effect in 2021, people are not arrested for possessing small quantities of any drug. Instead, if stopped by police with drugs on their person, they’re subject to a $100 civil fine, similar to a traffic ticket. If you then call a hotline for free health screening to determine if you would benefit from treatment, the citation is waived—even if treatment is recommended for you, and you don’t accept the offer.

    Data from the Drug Policy Alliance showed that drug arrests dropped significantly after the law took effect, with a 65 percent reduction in monthly arrests through 2022.

    The other key element of Measure 110—one that the new bill doesn’t appear to change—increased funding for treatment, social services and other supports, including harm reduction, for people who use drugs. It does this by allocating a portion of tax revenues from legal cannabis sales. Within the first year, service providers in Oregon benefited from over $300 million in additional funding that allowed them to hire more staff, distribute more naloxone and sterile syringes, offer housing assistance and more.

    The new bill is “the compromise path, but also the best policy that we can come up with to make sure that we are continuing to keep communities safe and save lives,” Senator Kate Lieber, one of the Democrats supporting it, told AP. That’s a reference to intense pressure from Republicans, law enforcement and business leaders over Measure 110, which they’re blaming—without evidence, when decriminalization doesn’t impact the supply—for increased overdose deaths, among other societal issues.

    Democrats backing the bill are seemingly caving to pressure, when there’s an active effort to put a measure repealing decriminalization on the November ballot.

    One Republican lawmaker, Representative Kevin Mannix, immediately illustrated the nature of this opposition by attacking the new bill for not criminalizing people who use drugs enough. “A low-level class C misdemeanor only provides 30 days in jail as an alternative,” he told AP. “This is nowhere near the amount of time needed to address addiction.”

    The Democrats backing the bill are seemingly caving to the pressure, when there’s already an active effort to put a measure repealing decriminalization on the November ballot. Different versions would either subject drug possession to a misdemeanor charge, and/or add felony charges for possession of certain drug-use equipment.

    The ballot measure is supported by the “Coalition to Fix and Improve Measure 110,” which includes representatives from both political parties, plus some of Oregon’s wealthiest business magnates and executives. The group vows to “Make possession of lethal drugs like fentanyl, meth, and heroin a crime again.” It wants to ban public drug use, replace voluntary treatment with coerced treatment, and increase penalties for drug sales. It claims to prioritize “diversion, treatment, and recovery” over jail, and would keep Measure 110’s funding of services with cannabis tax dollars.

    That measure has yet to be confirmed for the November ballot. But both it and the new bill would trample over the preferences and needs of people who use drugs, as one public health researcher’s work, among much other evidence, has illustrated.

    Danielle Good, PhD, a senior research associate at Comagine Health, conducted a study where she and her colleagues interviewed 468 people using drugs across Oregon to understand their awareness of Measure 110, and how it’s impacting them.

    She found that a high proportion of participants didn’t even know that all drugs have been decriminalized or what their rights are under the law, which speaks to the need to get the word out. However, most participants agreed, as you’d expect, that they want access to treatment and services—and do not want police involved in that access.

    “What we hear from people who use drugs in Oregon is that interacting with law enforcement tends to be a negative experience for them,” Dr. Good told Filter. “Whether that’s because they feel [police] may escalate situations, or people feel a lot of stress in those interactions. Most people we talked to didn’t think interacting with [police] or going to jail was a helpful situation for them. They talked about how hard it is to get their lives back together after they cycle through systems of criminalization.”

    “Amongst our survey pool, people who had been incarcerated in the last 12 months had a nearly double risk of overdose upon release.”

    Arresting and incarcerating people, besides being inherently harmful, puts people who use drugs at much greater risk, as much evidence has shown, when they’re released with lowered tolerance.

    “We found that amongst our survey pool, people who had been incarcerated in the last 12 months had a nearly double risk of overdose upon release,” Good said. “This is [just] jail, not prison … This is well-documented but we hadn’t seen it in Oregon yet, there is that data about the risk to life that comes from being incarcerated.”

    Her past research, including interviews with drug users and law enforcement, has indicated there are important issues to address with Measure 110’s ticketing and screening processes. People may be uninformed and confused about the nature of the “health screening,” and worry that by calling the hotline they could implicate themselves and be forced into treatment (which isn’t true). Rates of hotline use have reportedly been low.

    Good said the current law could be improved by having harm reduction and social service providers reach out directly to drug users who receive citations.

    “What we’re hearing is [providers] have so much more access to resources to engage people,” she said. “That could be $15 to get people coffee when they do outreach, bringing people socks or helping them get bus tickets—all things that are difficult to fund in a health care system but that Measure 110 is able to fund … Measure 110 funding has been an unabashedly good thing for them, they believe having this discretion to spend money and time is really helping.”

    Yet instead of seeking such ways to build on the positive impacts of decriminalization, lawmakers in Oregon are aiming to roll it back.


    Photograph by Oregon Department of Transportation via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from the Drug Policy Alliance to support a Drug-War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

    Update, January 26: This article has been edited to better reflect details of the bill and Dr. Good’s position.

    • 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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