Dec 14, 2023 - News

How Portugal's drug laws could influence Oregon policymakers

Illustration of a pill with a compass stamped on it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Drug addiction and treatment are expected to be a top focus when the Oregon Legislature convenes early next year — and a handful of key lawmakers will draw on experiences visiting Portugal as they decide what to do here.

Why it matters: Oregon followed Portugal's lead when voters statewide approved Measure 110 in 2020, decriminalizing personal drug use in favor of a health care-focused response.

What's happening: With drugs visible on city streets — including overdoses amid rising fentanyl use — lawmakers are under pressure to amend the law.

  • They're considering ideas such as banning public drug use, reinstating criminal penalties and expanding treatment.

Catch up quick: Four lawmakers — three Democrats and one Republican — were among two dozen policy experts, advocacy organizations and law enforcement officers who visited Portugal in late October.

  • Their early impressions ranged from intrigue over coordination between police and treatment providers, to noting that meth and fentanyl — two drugs driving Oregon's crisis — aren't widely used there.

Driving the news: A public forum hosted by the City Club of Portland this week showed how trip participants continue to refine their views.

What they're saying: "We have to have some tool to evade public drug use," Sgt. Aaron Schmautz, president of Portland's police union and a participant in the Portugal trip and at this week's forum, tells Axios. At a minimum, "public use of narcotics must be criminal," he says.

  • Public use is "one of the main things that voters are really grouchy about " state Rep. Rob Nosse, a Portland Democrat who chairs the House committee on behavioral health, tells Axios.
  • Addressing that, he says may "take the temperature down a bit" and give a treatment-based, rather than criminal, response to drug use "more time to work."

The big picture: Schmautz wants support organizations available around the clock for police to "hand off" people using drugs publicly for immediate help, from detox to treatment.

Yes but: "Does it have to be a criminal engagement to have those warm handoffs?" Mercedes Elizalde, advocacy director for the nonprofit Latino Network, asked during the City Club forum.

  • Community workers "really want to see that that's not necessary," she said.

Of note: Banning public drug use is among the recommendations made by Gov. Tina Kotek's task force on revitalizing downtown Portland.

By the numbers: Nosse says that during the upcoming legislative session, he would like to double the state's $300 million currently budgeted for drug treatment through 2025.

  • Another panel participant, Fernando Peña of the NW Instituto Latino pointed to state data showing the number of clients receiving addiction support services — including treatment — more than doubling across Oregon between July 2022 and March 2023.

What's next: Expect public discussions at the Capitol Jan. 10-12, as lawmakers hold hearings that will help finalize the 2024 legislative agenda ahead of its start in early February.

  • Private negotiations are also continuing on how to abate public drug use and get more people into recovery.
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