Feb 29, 2024 - News

Inside the pushback against drug re-criminalization

Illustration of a handcuff in the shape of a circular arrow.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A bill aimed at rolling back key components of voter-approved Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of illicit drugs, like heroin, fentanyl and meth, is expected to receive a vote in the Oregon House this week.

Why it matters: The move comes as lawmakers wrestle with how to handle skyrocketing overdose rates and fentanyl use, while advocates of decriminalization argue backtracking will only worsen the crisis.

The intrigue: Pushback against HB 4002 has been fierce.

  • Lawmakers have heard emotional testimony in packed legislative hearings, and advocacy groups have argued the interests of business leaders and criminal justice officials were being prioritized over everyday people.
  • Kellen Russoniello, senior policy counsel with the Drug Policy Alliance, said re-criminalization would mean Oregon is "essentially going back to the war on drugs playbook" and would disproportionately penalize people of color.

The other side: "We wanted to have a treatment-first plan but we also realized that we needed law enforcement buy-in," state Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber (D-Portland), told Oregon Public Broadcasting last week. "Inaction was not an option."

Flashback: Voters overwhelmingly approved Measure 110 in 2020, making Oregon the first state to decriminalize possession of illicit drugs — where a $100 citation is issued instead of arresting a possessor and police can provide treatment referrals to drug users.

  • The law also earmarked millions of dollars from the state's cannabis tax revenue to fund community-based behavioral and drug treatment centers. In December, the initiative sent $264 million in grants to 233 service providers.

What they're saying: "There is no perfect policy that gets rolled out immediately," Sandy Chung, the executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, tells Axios, pointing to Oregon's lack of treatment beds and a seemingly never-ending waitlist of those seeking services.

  • "If even the people who voluntarily want it can't access services, what's the point of criminalization?"

What's inside: The House proposal, which has bipartisan support, would create a new class of misdemeanors for possession punishable by up to 180 days in jail and allocate funds to increase access to medication-assisted treatment, like buprenorphine, and treatment facilities.

  • If someone is convicted of possession, they can opt for an 18-month probation term — with the requirement to attend treatment, if deemed necessary by a health evaluation — unless they indicate they would rather do the six months in jail.
  • Judges, however, can override that request and sentence probation instead.

The bottom line: Decriminalization advocates like Chung and Russoniello say the bill — if it passes both legislative chambers and is signed by Gov. Tina Kotek — will put even more pressure on the state's behavioral health system and public defender shortage.

What's next: If the measure is approved by House lawmakers this week, it could be pushed to the Senate floor quickly before the session ends on March 10.

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