(Headline USA) Oregon‘s first-in-the-nation law that decriminalized the possession of heroin, cocaine and other illicit drugs is facing strong pushback in the progressive state after an explosion of public drug use and a surge in deaths from opioids, including those of children.
“The inability for people to live their day-to-day life without encountering open-air drug use is so pressing on urban folks’ minds,” said John Horvick, vice president of polling firm DHM Research. “That has very much changed people’s perspective about what they think Measure 110 is.”
When the law was approved by 58% of Oregon voters three years ago, supporters championed Measure 110 as a revolutionary approach that would transform addiction by minimizing penalties for drug use and investing instead in recovery.
But even top Democratic lawmakers who backed the law, which will likely dominate the upcoming legislative session, say they’re now open to revisiting it after the biggest increase in synthetic opioid deaths among states that have reported their numbers.
The cycle of addiction and homelessness spurred by fentanyl is most visible in Portland, where it’s not unusual to see people shooting up in broad daylight on busy city streets.
“Everything’s on the table,” said Democratic state Sen. Kate Lieber, co-chair of a new joint legislative committee created to tackle addiction. “We have got to do something to make sure that we have safer streets and that we’re saving lives.”
Measure 110 directed the state’s cannabis tax revenue toward drug addiction treatment services while decriminalizing the possession of so-called “personal use” amounts of illicit drugs. Possession of under a gram of heroin, for example, is only subject to a ticket and a maximum fine of $100.
Those caught with small amounts of drugs can have the citation dismissed by calling a 24-hour hotline to complete an addiction screening within 45 days, but those who don’t do a screening are not penalized for failing to pay the fine. In the first year after the law took effect in February 2021, only 1% of people who received citations for possession sought help via the hotline, state auditors found.
Critics of the law say this doesn’t create an incentive to seek treatment.
Republican lawmakers have urged Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek to call a special session to address the issue before the Legislature reconvenes in February. They have proposed harsher sanctions for possession and other drug-related offenses, such as mandatory treatment and easing restrictions on placing people under the influence on holds in facilities such as hospitals if they pose a danger to themselves or others.
“Treatment should be a requirement, not a suggestion,” a group of Republican state representatives said in a letter to Kotek.
Law enforcement officials who have testified before the new legislative committee on addiction have proposed reestablishing drug possession as a class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in jail or a $6,250 fine.
“We don’t believe a return to incarceration is the answer, but restoring a (class A) misdemeanor for possession with diversion opportunities is critically important,” Jason Edmiston, chief of police in the small, rural city of Hermiston in northeast Oregon, told the committee.
Estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show, among the states reporting data, Oregon had the highest increase in synthetic opioid overdose fatalities when comparing 2019 and the 12-month period ending June 30, a 13-fold surge from 84 deaths to more than 1,100.
Among the next highest was neighboring Washington state, which saw its estimated synthetic opioid overdose deaths increase seven-fold when comparing those same time periods, CDC data shows.
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press