Oregon’s Drug Decriminalization Law Faces Resistance Amid Fentanyl Crisis

Oregon’s groundbreaking law decriminalizing small drug amounts faces challenges amid fentanyl-driven public drug use surge and opioid-related deaths.

Three years ago, when 58% of Oregon voters endorsed the law, proponents hailed Measure 110 as a groundbreaking strategy poised to revolutionize addiction treatment by reducing penalties for drug use and redirecting resources toward recovery initiatives.

However, even prominent Democratic lawmakers, who initially supported the law and anticipated its prominence in the upcoming legislative session, express a willingness to reconsider it in light of the substantial rise in synthetic opioid deaths.

In Portland, the cycle of addiction and homelessness, driven by fentanyl, is glaringly evident. It is not uncommon to witness individuals injecting drugs in broad daylight on bustling city streets.

Measure 110 allocated the cannabis tax revenue in the state to support drug addiction treatment services, simultaneously decriminalizing the possession of what is deemed personal use quantities of illicit drugs. For instance, possession of less than a gram of heroin now results in only a citation and a maximum fine of $100.

Individuals found with small amounts of drugs have the option to have the citation expunged by contacting a 24-hour hotline and completing an addiction screening within 45 days. However, those who choose not to undergo screening face no penalties for failing to pay the fine.

State auditors discovered that in the initial year following the law’s implementation in February 2021, merely 1% of individuals who received citations for possession sought assistance through the hotline.

Detractors of the legislation argue that this fails to provide a motivation for individuals to actively pursue treatment.

Republican legislators have pressed Gov. Tina Kotek (D) to convene a special session to tackle the matter before the legislature reconvenes in February. They advocate for more stringent consequences for possession and other drug-related infractions, including mandatory treatment and loosening restrictions on placing individuals under the influence in facilities like hospitals if they present a risk to themselves or others.

Law enforcement officials, providing testimony before the recently formed legislative committee on addiction, have suggested reinstating drug possession as a class A misdemeanor. This classification entails penalties of up to a year in jail or a fine of $6,250.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s projections, Oregon experienced the most significant rise in synthetic opioid overdose fatalities when comparing 2019 to the 12-month period ending June 30. The increase was staggering, escalating from 84 deaths to over 1,100, marking a thirteen-fold surge.

Advocates for Oregon’s legislation argue that it faced a convergence of larger factors, including the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, a shortage in the mental health workforce and the fentanyl crisis.