Three years after Oregon decriminalized possession of small amounts of hard drugs in efforts to reform the criminal justice system, cities and law enforcement are now pushing to gradually recriminalize drug possession.
The League of Oregon Cities, along with police and prosecutors, have called on state lawmakers to reverse 2020’s Ballot Measure 110, which decriminalized drug possession, in an effort to combat drug overdoses.
Since Measure 110 passed, Oregon has witnessed a surge in overdoses and deaths due to a nationwide fentanyl epidemic.
The state severely lacks treatment options and is grappling with a mental health crisis and a housing shortage.
Public sentiment toward drug policy has shifted since the measure was enacted, with many now calling for stricter enforcement.
Indeed, district attorneys, sheriffs, police and city governments have expressed their frustration and are advocating for changes.
“As your partners in public safety, we believe that Ballot Measure 110 failed to recognize that drug addiction is both a public health and public safety crisis and requires solutions on both sides of the ledger,” the League of Oregon Cities, the Oregon State Sheriffs Association, the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police and the Oregon District Attorneys Association said in a letter to lawmakers.
The coalition put forward 11 proposals to address the addiction crisis and the rising fentanyl-related deaths.
One key proposal is to recriminalize drug possession, making it a Class-A misdemeanor. Under Measure 110, personal possession of hard drugs is not considered a crime; instead, police are required to issue citations to connect users with treatment.
The coalition’s proposals suggest that individuals charged with possession could have the charges dismissed after completing the required treatment, stating their goal to focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration.
Additionally, the coalition calls for new misdemeanor charges to prohibit the use of hard drugs in public spaces, with repeat offenders potentially facing low-level felony charges.
The coalition is also seeking legislative changes to facilitate prosecutions by redefining “delivering a controlled substance,” making it easier to nab drug dealers.
Lawmakers and Governor Tina Kotek have indicated their willingness to address this issue.
Another proposal introduced was the expanding of treatment options, including detox and sobering centers. These centers often serve as the first step in addiction treatment, but Oregon’s limited capacity poses a challenge.
The group also introduced a proposal to grant first responders the authority to place severely intoxicated individuals under a wellness hold for up to 72 hours, ensuring they receive supervised medical care. Afterward, individuals would have the choice to leave or continue to receive services.
It goes on to reference other Western states “that have implemented these policies have seen a high level of engagement with aftercare and wrap-around services.”
While these proposals include measures to recriminalize drug possession, supporters declared that the intent is not solely punitive but to establish accountability in the system.
“All these strategies need to work hand in hand,” said Sam Chase, director of Portland’s Office of Government Relations. “But we have to have those tools for our public safety officials to be able to address Portland’s crisis.”
In addition, some prominent business leaders and public officials have filed voter initiatives that align with the coalition’s demands, adding momentum to the calls for change.
Amid these developments, a group of elected officials and criminal justice figures is visiting Portugal to learn about the country’s experience with drug decriminalization since 2001. This trip was organized by the Health Justice Resource Alliance, a significant supporter of Measure 110.
Supporters of Measure 110 argue that the law has diverted many individuals away from the criminal justice system, and that reinstating low-level drug charges could further strain an already overburdened system.
Oregon has struggled to provide sufficient public defenders in recent years, raising concerns about the capacity of the legal system to address societal issues effectively.