Oregon Considers Reversing Course on Hard Drugs

Just 2 years after Measure 110 passed, officials are taking a hard look at whether it's working
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 18, 2023 8:30 AM CST
Oregon Considers Reversing Course on Hard Drugs
A woman enters a drug treatment center in Salem, Oregon.   (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky, File)

Oregon became the first state to decriminalize all drugs, but with overdoses and public intoxication on the rise, officials are taking a hard look at whether the new law is working. The Wall Street Journal reports that Measure 110, which had 58% support in 2020, is declining in popularity after going into effect in 2021. The law makes it legal to possess small amounts of any drug, and instead of arresting users for possession, police officers can issue tickets of up to $100 (rehab info is printed on them). One officer calls the tickets a "waste of time," as they're largely ignored and not enforced. Of the 6,000 tickets issued over the last two years, only 92 resulted in people reaching out to find services.

"We don't see people getting well as a result of issuing citations, and so it's hard to get really excited about doing that work," said Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner, who added that most of his officers stopped writing them. At the same time, fatal overdoses in Oregon have sharply risen, up 23% from the prior year to May. Supporters of the law note that fentanyl use is largely to blame for the rise in overdoses (in line with national trends), and that the main goal of the legislation is to stop filling jail cells with people who use drugs. Arrests from drug use in 2020 (11,000) fell to 4,000 in 2022.

Advocates hope that increased funding in treatment centers and boots on the ground will get people to voluntarily seek help. "When people access services voluntarily ... that's really powerful and effective," Tera Hurst of the nonprofit Health Justice Recovery Alliance tells the Journal. Stanford professor Keith Humphreys, however, believes the policies framework is a misunderstanding of how addiction works. "They really had the assumption that if you decriminalize, people would come rushing in saying, 'Please, give me treatment,' but addiction is not like cancer where people crawl through broken glass to get treatment." Prior to the law passing, people in possession of drugs were either mandated to attend rehab or faced jail time or probation.

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Those who hope to revise the law believe people using drugs need a strong incentive to seek treatment, while others want it repealed completely. Per Axios, Portland's City Council has already voted to criminalize hard drugs, though it can't enforce arrests. In a summer poll, 64% of Oregonians support revising Measure 110, while 56% want to repeal it all together. A group of state and county leaders recently visited Portugal to learn from that country's successful decriminalization policies, reports KATU. More funding for mobile units and treatment were lessons some took home, but others were skeptical that the drug stance in Portugal, where fentanyl and meth are less common, doesn't translate back home. "It's not apples to apples. You can't compare Oregon and Portugal," said one state representative. (Read more stories about drug decriminalization).

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