Drug decriminalization measure would radically change approach to addiction

Here is how the measure would change Oregon's approach to curbing addiction if it passes.

Posted: Oct 31, 2020 10:16 AM
Updated: Nov 2, 2020 12:17 PM

SALEM, Ore. -- Oregonians voting on Measure 110 will decide if the state should decriminalize noncommercial possession of small amounts of drugs and radically change the state's approach to curbing addiction.

Supporters say the first way the measure seeks to address addiction is by increasing funding to treatment programs while establishing addiction recovery centers.

Florence emergency room physician Dr. William Foster said he regularly sees patients going through withdrawal or other symptoms of drug addiction, which he is not equipped to address.

"Multiple times a month, I see a patient who that is the primary reason they are in the emergency department," he said. "Often I feel that it's a revolving door. I treat them for their urgent problem and send them out the door knowing full well that I haven't really affected the underlying problem."

The addiction recovery centers would offer 24-hour access every day of the year at no cost to users. They would be funded by grants awarded to already-existing local organizations. The state estimates they would cost $57 million in marijuana revenue annually, decreasing funding for the State School Fund, mental health, alcoholism and drug services, Oregon State Police as well as cities and counties by millions of dollars.

The second way the measure would change the state's approach to addiction would be through decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs.

For instance, the measure would reduce the possession of less than one gram of heroin or less than two grams of cocaine from a misdemeanor to a Class E Violation.

A person caught with a small quantity of a drug would have the choice of paying a $100 fine or going to an addiction recovery center for a health assessment. The health assessment involves behavioral health needs assessment and substance use disorder screening by a credentialed professional but is not a substitute for treatment.

Case managers at the centers would be able to connect addicts to treatment and other resources if the person chooses to seek them out.

Portland criminal defense lawyer Jim O'Rourke is himself in long-term recovery and believes this system is inadequate, destroying already existing pathways to treatment through the criminal justice system such as drug court. He believes the current trend among counties is to establish diversion programs that keep addicts out of court proceedings entirely.

"That is the path of progress. That path of progress will be interrupted by this measure, and a lot of people will lose the opportunity to be motivated to do something they can't do themselves because they are addicts," he said. "I would have paid the fine and told myself that I can handle it on my own and that I'll quit tomorrow. The problem is, tomorrow never came."

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin fears that addicts won't be encouraged to seek out treatment without the threat of punishment and is concerned that there could be an increase in addiction.

"What's going to be a deterrent? There's not going to be a deterrent, if there's no criminal penalty there's no threat of or danger of the police come crashing through your door," he said.

Executive Director of Public Defender Services of Lane County Brook Reinhard pushed back against the belief that punitive measures are an effective motivator.

"Right now people continue to use despite the possibility of penalties and the convictions," he said. "Why not try a new approach?"

He said that the state's criminal justice system is simply overburdened, and addiction should be treated as a health issue instead of a criminal one.

"Typically, a client of mine who gets involved with a drug-related crime, if they don't qualify for drug court or can't do other treatment-based solutions, they do a little jail upfront, but then if they mess up probation, they're likely to do 60 days or more of jail later. And that's really destabilizing when we are just talking about substance use," he said.

If passed, the measure would require the Oregon Health Authority to establish a council in charge of distributing funds and overseeing the implementation of the addiction recovery centers.

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