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Oregon Revisits Drug Decriminalization Law in Response to Fentanyl Crisis

Democratic lawmakers in Oregon have unveiled a comprehensive new bill that seeks to reverse a crucial aspect of the state’s pioneering drug decriminalization law. This change reflects a growing consensus that public sentiment has shifted due to the widespread issue of public drug use, particularly during the fentanyl crisis.

Re-criminalizing Small Drug Possession

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The proposed bill aims to recriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs, categorizing it as a low-level misdemeanor. This change would grant law enforcement the authority to seize such substances and enforce restrictions on their usage in public areas like sidewalks and parks.

Facilitating Prosecution

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Additionally, the bill intends to facilitate the prosecution of drug dealers, improve access to addiction treatment medication, and prevent discrimination against individuals using such medication when seeking housing.

A Compromise for Community Safety

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State Senator Kate Lieber, a Democrat from Portland, described the bill as a compromise that prioritizes community safety and saving lives. This shift comes after voters overwhelmingly supported Measure 110, Oregon’s groundbreaking drug decriminalization law, with a 58% majority in 2020.

Democrats Grapple With Spate of OD’s

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However, Democratic legislators, who initially championed the law as a way to address addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal offense, are grappling with a surge in overdose deaths—one of the nation’s largest—as well as mounting pressure from Republicans and well-funded campaign groups advocating for changes.

Unresolved Impact on Overdose Surge

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Although researchers have not yet determined whether Measure 110 has contributed to the state’s spike in overdose deaths, proponents of the law argue that decades of arresting individuals for drug possession and use have proven ineffective.

Legislative Action to Address the Crisis

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The bill, unveiled by Senator Lieber and fellow Democrats serving on a newly formed addiction committee, is scheduled for introduction during the legislative session commencing in February.

Committee Formed Over Drug Crisis

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The committee was established due to concerns over the state’s drug crisis, prompting Democrats to reconvene outside of the regular legislative schedule. Since September, the committee has conducted multiple hearings and gathered input from law enforcement and substance use disorder experts to assess the law’s successes and limitations.

Measure 110 Overview

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Measure 110 redirected the state’s cannabis tax revenue toward drug addiction treatment while decriminalizing “personal use” quantities of illegal drugs. For example, possession of less than one gram of heroin resulted in only a citation and a maximum fine of $100.

Low Uptake of Addiction Screening

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In the year following the law’s implementation in February 2021, state auditors found that only 1% of individuals who received citations for drug possession sought assistance through the provided hotline. As of June of that year, the hotline received an average of just 10 calls per month related to citations.

Addressing Criticisms and Proposed Changes

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Critics of the law argue that it has failed to incentivize individuals to seek treatment—a concern that the new bill aims to address. While the final details of the measure are pending, it would elevate the possession of illegal drugs for personal use to a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail or a $1,250 fine. Notably, the bill would not impact Oregon’s existing legalization of cannabis or psychedelic mushrooms.

New Referral System for Offenders

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Individuals arrested for possessing small amounts of drugs would be directed by law enforcement to a peer support specialist for an assessment or intervention scheduling. Those who attend the meeting would not face charges. However, those who fail to appear could have their offense referred to the district attorney’s office.

Alternative Approaches to Accountability

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For those facing charges, the bill introduces alternatives to incarceration. Offenders could opt for probation with specific conditions or have their case redirected to drug court, where judges emphasize placement in treatment programs instead of jail time.

Republican Demands for Stricter Measures

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Republican lawmakers argue that the bill does not go far enough in addressing the crisis. They advocate for mandatory treatment and suggest that “personal use” possession of drugs should be classified as a higher-level misdemeanor, carrying penalties of up to a year in jail or a $6,250 fine.

Advocacy Groups Oppose Criminalization

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Advocacy groups that have supported Oregon’s decriminalization law oppose the proposal to once again criminalize “personal use” drug possession. They emphasize the need for services and investments in those services to help individuals with addiction, stating that criminalization does more harm than good.

Combatting Drug Dealing and Enhancing Treatment

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The bill also seeks to streamline the prosecution of drug dealers and impose stricter penalties for drug-related activities in parks, near homeless shelters, and substance use disorder treatment centers.

Expanding Access to Treatment Medication

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In addition to addressing drug possession, the bill aims to expand access to treatment, especially medications used to combat opioid addiction. It proposes allowing doctors to prescribe such medication without prior insurance approval, along with facilitating prescription refills by pharmacists in specific emergency situations.

Protecting Housing Rights

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The bill intends to expand fair housing standards to prevent discrimination against individuals prescribed addiction treatment medication when seeking or maintaining long-term housing facilities, such as permanent supportive housing for those exiting homelessness.

Limited Time for Legislative Action

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Lawmakers will face a tight timeline, with just 35 days to pass the bill once the legislative session begins on February 5th.

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