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Oregon lawmakers hear hours of passionate testimony on proposals to recriminalize drug possession

FILE - Three unidentified people in downtown Portland, Ore., Oct. 6, 2023. Oregon lawmakers heard testimony Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, on three proposals to recriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs.

FILE – Three unidentified people in downtown Portland, Ore., Oct. 6, 2023. Oregon lawmakers heard testimony Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, on three proposals to recriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

A fierce and growing debate over whether to end Oregon’s three-year drug decriminalization experiment took center stage Wednesday, as lawmakers wrestling with the issue invited anyone with an opinion to weigh in.

In a public hearing that lasted nearly four hours, a stream of advocates, law enforcement officers, attorneys, businesspeople and everyday Oregonians implored lawmakers to tackle surging overdoses and growing public disarray in Portland and beyond — though their prescriptions for how to do so were often starkly different.

In one camp were those urging lawmakers to leave in place the decriminalization policy created by 2020′s Measure 110. They argued that expanding the state’s approach of treating addiction as a public health matter, rather than a crime, is the best way to steer drug users to treatment. They warned against allowing Oregon to fall back into a failed drug war that the state’s strained justice system cannot withstand.

“Please address drug addiction and homelessness, but do so with real solutions — not political theater,” said Sandy Chung, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. “For decades, lawmakers have fed unconscionable amounts of money and actual human beings into the criminal legal system.”

In the other camp were those convinced that Measure 110 must be undone, in whole or in part, in order to give police a greater role in disrupting the open drug use and disorder playing out on some city streets.

Related: Oregon pioneered a radical drug policy. Now it’s reconsidering

Reintroducing criminal consequences for possessing small amounts of illicit drugs, they argued, would also reintroduce accountability for drug users that has been lacking since those consequences disappeared in February 2021. Only stricter potential penalties, some people who testified said, would be enough to convince drug users to seek help.

“It is no longer 2020,” said Albany Mayor Alex Johnson, who told lawmakers his goddaughter died of a fentanyl overdose in 2021. “The world has changed. Fentanyl has become a death grip.”

The debate has an air of urgency. Lawmakers are rushing to do something to respond to the surging availability of fentanyl — and its attendant flood of overdose deaths — before they adjourn no later than March 10. And while decriminalization advocates argue there is no compelling evidence that Measure 110 is to blame for the impacts of a fentanyl crisis that has taken hold in Western states, the law has become an obvious target.

“Measure 110 has failed,” said House Minority Leader Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, a former Portland police sergeant. “We can see it on the streets. We can see it in the statistics. We can hear it in the voices of the victims.”

Wednesday’s hearing was the public’s first — and perhaps only — chance to offer in-person reaction to three bills that all propose to roll back Measure 110 in various ways.

Majority Democrats have staked their position with House Bill 4002. An initial draft of the bill would make possession of small amounts of drugs like fentanyl and heroin a Class C misdemeanor, the state’s least-severe crime classification punishable by 30 days in jail.

Among its many provisions, the bill would also create a new system by which drug users could opt to meet with a social services provider rather than face charges for possession, make it easier to seek harsh punishments for drug dealers, and expand access to medications that ease opioid withdrawal.

Democrats also plan to seek an unspecified amount of state funding to rapidly expand addiction services in the state.

State Sen. Kate Lieber, D-Portland, and Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend, the architects of the bill, have attempted to sell the proposal as a way to give police more leverage while prioritizing treatment by offering drug users multiple paths to avoid criminal consequences.

Related: Kotek signals she would sign bill recriminalizing drugs in Oregon

But their plan faces almost total opposition — by those who oppose recriminalization and by those who say the bill is far too weak to force people to seek help and might be impossible to institute. As of Wednesday evening, more than 500 people had filed testimony opposing the plan, much of it via a form letter provided by decriminalization proponents. Just 18 people had signaled support.

Republicans are advocating a more strict approach in the form of two bills: Senate Bill 1555 and House Bill 4036. The first is similar to a ballot measure that is being pursued by a deep-pocketed coalition led by a former head of the state Department of Corrections. The second was drafted with the help of district attorneys and other groups pressing for changes.

The proposals contain some similarities to the Democratic bill, including provisions to crack down on dealers and “off ramps” to allow people to avoid criminal penalties. But both would elevate drug possession to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail. They would make using drugs in public a separate misdemeanor crime, and create new consequences for selling drugs that result in a fatal overdose or possessing equipment that can produce counterfeit prescription drugs. Fake oxycodone pills, nicknamed “blues” for their color, are a common way of distributing fentanyl.

Republicans also want to alter how the state decides how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars designed to expand addiction services in Oregon. Rather than giving authority over that spending to a citizen commission overseen by the Oregon Health Authority, it would route the money through the state’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission.

Because of its harsher stance, the GOP approach has backing from a growing coalition, including police agencies, district attorneys and leaders of cities around the state. Most recently, the Association of Oregon Counties, which lobbies on behalf of county governments, voted Monday to support making drug possession a Class A misdemeanor.

Jennifer Lewis-Goff, a lobbyist for the group, said this week counties believe a more-serious penalty gives law enforcement greater ability to disrupt drug use and offer a “longer timeline to allow for public health intervention.”

Related: How fentanyl and social isolation have worsened the youth homelessness crisis in Oregon

For hours Wednesday evening, advocates on both sides of the issue offered their best ideas for how to address the state’s addiction crisis, many relating personal stories that had informed their stance.

A Portland police officer, Aaron Anderson, verged on tears as he relayed the story of responding to a call from a mother whose 15-year-old son had died of an overdose in July 2023.

“I’m telling you I don’t think I can embrace another mother to tell her her son is gone,” Anderson said, suggesting stronger criminal penalties are necessary. “I need you to do the right thing here.”

Nathan Vasquez, an assistant Multnomah County prosecutor vying to be the county’s next district attorney, told of his son wearing a backpack on the front of his body during a walk to school in downtown Portland in order to guard against a man waving around a “heroin needle.”

“How did we get to the point where our children have to use their backpacks as shields to walk to school?” Vasquez asked.

But more people warned lawmakers that any move to recriminalize drug possession would be a drastic mistake. They argued that the nation’s five-decade war on drugs has had no success stopping drug use, and that generating potential criminal consequences will make it more difficult for people to beat their addictions.

“We need to invest in more peer support, more treatment, more support. Not jails,” said Jackie Yerby, a staff member at ACLU of Oregon and a one-time adviser to former Gov. Kate Brown. “As I’ve watched you work on this, I keep wondering how this will be different from 50 years of the war on drugs.”

Others argued that any move toward criminalizing drug possession is doomed to fail because of the state’s under-resourced criminal justice system.

“There is no current capacity in our public defense system to provide these people with lawyers,” said Jennifer Nash, a Corvallis lawyer and chair of the Oregon Public Defense Commission. “Those defendants would likely be placed on an unrepresented persons list, and we estimate that their cases would take between 18 to 36 months from the time of their arrest to be resolved.”

How the hours of testimony might impact any of the bills lawmakers took up Wednesday remained unclear. But decriminalization advocates like attorney Leland Berger see the writing on the wall for this legislative session.

“I’ve been coming here long enough to know,” Berger told lawmakers, “that when there are three bills before a committee — two from the red team and one from the blue team — and they all support the same basic principle, that the train seems to be on the track.”

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