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Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek indicates she would sign a bill recriminalizing drug possession

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Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek speaks at a press conference in Portland, Jan. 30, 2024. Multnomah County, the city of Portland and the state of Oregon jointly declared a 90-day state of emergency to address the fentanyl crisis in Portland.

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek speaks at a press conference in Portland, Jan. 30, 2024. Multnomah County, the city of Portland and the state of Oregon jointly declared a 90-day state of emergency to address the fentanyl crisis in Portland.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Gov. Tina Kotek signaled Wednesday she is willing to sign a bill that would once again make possessing small amounts of drugs a criminal offense in Oregon.

But as Kotek looks at any bill the Legislature sends her way, she warned she will be most concerned with what other steps lawmakers take to ensure drug users are being given the option of receiving addiction services.

“I want to see a proposal that answers a set of questions,” Kotek told reporters at an event previewing her priorities for the session that convenes Feb. 5. “One piece will be criminalization, but if we just look at criminalization in isolation, I think it’s missing the point. So my question is going to be … what else are you going to do different to make sure we have better outcomes?”

The remarks are the strongest Kotek has made to date about her stance on rolling back the drug decriminalization policies that were a key piece of 2020′s Ballot Measure 110. Under the law, possessing illicit drugs like fentanyl and heroin became a violation, punishable by a toothless ticket.

As a gubernatorial candidate in 2022, Kotek warned that more time was necessary before Oregon made any major changes to Measure 110, in order to build out a robust network of addiction services. And as recently as December, the governor was noncommittal on the subject of recriminalization, saying she would wait to see what lawmakers sent her way.

Now there appears to be little doubt that any bill that passes this year will roll back Measure 110. Democrats unveiled a proposal last week that — among many other provisions — would make it a Class C misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail.

That proposal has seen pushback from all sides, with advocates for decriminalization warning the state will backslide into a failed drug war, and Republicans, law enforcement groups and others pressing for possession to be a more-serious, Class A misdemeanor.

All sides of the debate say they are most concerned with steering people toward treatment, as the grip of fentanyl has led to surging overdoses and given rise to public drug use in Portland and other Oregon cities.

Related: Overdoses have become a daily reality on the streets of Portland

The issue is expected to be a central focus of the 35-day legislative session, with advocates gearing up to make their case to lawmakers.

Kotek suggested Wednesday that whatever the Legislature decides on the criminalization question will be secondary to policies that expand treatment options and help convince drug users to seek them.

“I know there’s a lot of focus on the criminalization, but I would hope everybody looks at this as a comprehensive package,” she said. “It is about what you do on the front end as it relates for example to the misdemeanor, but it’s also about connecting people with services, making sure we’re planning better, making sure we’re making investments.”

The remarks came a day after Kotek met with leaders from the city of Portland and Multnomah County to declare a 90-day state of emergency around the city’s fentanyl woes. That effort will look to coordinate services from all three governments to better tackle the crisis.

To that end, the governor says she has been working with the Oregon Health Authority to inventory what treatment resources are available in the state, and what more is needed — a critical question given the urgency many policymakers have for funding new services.

“It’s a complex proposal and I’m watching it evolve and we’ll see where it ends up,” Kotek said.

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