Oregon Cities

Oregon takes massive step toward recriminalizing drug possession

State Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, speaks on the House floor in favor of House Bill 2002 on Thursday. Among its many provisions, the bill would reintroduce criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs.

State Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, speaks on the House floor in favor of House Bill 2002 on Thursday. Among its many provisions, the bill would reintroduce criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs.

Dirk VanderHart / OPB

A bill that would make possession of small amounts of drugs a crime in Oregon for the first time in three years is now one vote from reaching the desk of Gov. Tina Kotek.

On Thursday, the House voted overwhelmingly to pass House Bill 4002, despite many lawmakers voicing concern that the proposal goes too far — or not far enough.

After a debate that included powerful speeches about lawmakers’ own experience with family members and friends suffering from addiction, the House passed HB 4002 on a vote of 51-7. That bipartisan support appears likely to be mirrored when the Senate takes up the bill as early as Friday.

Some lawmakers said they hoped that the threat of consequences will convince drug users to pursue treatment.

“A drug user has two options: To pursue treatment or to serve jail time,” said state Rep. Ed Diehl, R-Stayton, echoing many of his GOP colleagues. “I believe this is the compassionate thing to do for people afflicted with addiction who are not voluntarily seeking treatment.”

Others voiced hope the bill would help the state continue to expand addiction services, while helping to rein in the public drug use and surging overdoses that have many Oregonians frustrated and alarmed.

“I’m confident the compromise that 4002 represents is a good one,” said state Rep. Maxine Dexter, D-Portland, a physician. “It addresses public drug use while also treating addiction as the public health crisis.”

The strong support bore little resemblance to the fiery debate that has made HB 4002 one of the most contentious bills of this year’s five-week legislative session. But it wasn’t shared by all lawmakers.

“The passage of this bill will still be a regression toward the failed war on drugs,” said Rep. Mark Gamba, D-Milwaukie, who said opposing the bill was the toughest vote he’d taken as a lawmaker. “It’s a step backwards for us as a society.”

Gamba was one of four Democrats to oppose the bill, alongside Reps. Farrah Chaichi of Beaverton, Travis Nelson of Portland, and Khanh Pham of Portland. Republicans Diehl, Dwayne Yunker, R-Grants Pass, and Jami Cate, R-Lebanon, also voted no.

Spanning 75 pages, HB 4002 would enact wide-ranging changes in the state’s approach to addiction. It would make it easier to access medications that treat opioid withdrawal, expand services around Oregon, put money toward training more treatment workers, and create three separate studies that will pave the way for future policies.

But the bill has drawn controversy for the changes it would make to Oregon’s pioneering drug decriminalization laws. In closed-door negotiations with interest groups and Republicans, majority Democrats agreed to stiffer potential penalties than they’d initially hoped for.

The bill would make possession of small amounts of drugs a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. Users in many cases would be offered opportunities to engage in treatment rather than ultimately receiving a criminal conviction, and could even be released from jail in order to participate in a treatment program.

HB 4002 tightens drug laws in other ways, making several changes that will help prosecutors seek stiff penalties against drug dealers. That includes provisions that would allow dealers to get harsher sentences for selling drugs near a homeless shelter, treatment facility or public park.

Democrats are also hoping to create new “deflection” programs across most of the state, with participating counties working to connect drug users to treatment rather than arresting and charging them with a crime. Those who are convicted would have the crime automatically expunged from their record after three years.

To support the increased costs brought on by the bill, lawmakers voted on a $211 million spending package immediately after passing HB 4002. The budget bill sailed through with even stronger support, 54-2.

“This is a dramatic change in how we have conducted business in the criminal justice system in our state,” said state Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend, a former prosecutor and one of the bill’s architects.

Democrats who backed the bill argue this treatment-forward approach would still give Oregon the most compassionate drug laws in the country. But estimates suggest the law will wind up adding hundreds of cases to an already strained courts system. Advocacy groups that support drug decriminalization have torn into lawmakers for advancing a proposal they believe will disproportionately harm people of color and move the state back to a failed drug war.

“The public health approach of expanding treatment without punishment was the right approach, but HB 4002 doubles down on the same mistakes the state made in implementing Measure 110,” said Tera Hurst, director of the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, which supported the 2020 ballot measure that decriminalized drug possession. “Unfortunately, it will be people struggling with addiction — especially those living outside and Black and brown Oregonians — who will pay the biggest price. And our communities will be no safer for it.”

An estimate by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission suggests that enforcement of the new law will lead to 29 more Black Oregonians per year being convicted of drug possession than their proportion of the population.

Democrats have acknowledged that risk. The party moved forward with a bill that Republicans and law enforcement groups largely support, leaders have said, because of the threat of a ballot measure campaign that could ask voters to enact more drastic changes. Polling has suggested Oregonians weary of the impacts of fentanyl could be eager to approve that measure.

That threat may be dissipating. The group led by Max Williams, the former Corrections Department chief who was also a state lawmaker, issued a statement after the vote saying it would stand down if Kotek signs the bill.

“A law that achieves 85% of what we proposed now is well worth the lives and communities that will be saved sooner rather than waiting for the passage and implementation of a ballot measure over a year from now,” the group wrote in a news release.

In a state where an accelerating addiction crisis has left no area untouched, lawmakers from around Oregon offered deeply personal stories Thursday about how drug use has impacted their lives.

Rep. James Hieb, R-Canby, spoke of two brothers who died of fentanyl overdoses a decade ago.

“I’ve told my family story so many times that I have become numb to my own pain,” Hieb said. “At times, I have felt so discouraged, defeated and disappointed with our leaders. I’ve wondered how could they let this tragedy continue. Have they not learned anything?”

The approach in HB 4002, Hieb said, was imperfect but left him “pleasantly surprised.”

Rep. Annessa Hartman, D-Gladstone, spoke at length about her and her family’s struggle with addiction, including a stepbrother who died of a fentanyl overdose shortly after being released from jail. While Hartman echoed many Democrats who have concerns that criminalizing possession will impact people of color, she said the time her stepbrother spent in jail was the longest time he’d remained clean since becoming addicted.

“I can also support this bill because I’m someone who believes that sometimes, sometimes the threat of jail is exactly what someone needs to hit rock bottom,” Hartman said. “I know that it is not the only tool and should not be the first option, but it can be a tool. It can be a tool as long as we couple it with treatment and recovery.”

Hartman is a member of the Haudenosaunee, Cayuga Nation, Snipe Clan, and the third Indigenous person elected to the Oregon House of Representatives.”

Rep. Dacia Grayber, a Portland Democrat and a firefighter, spoke on behalf of her co-workers who are increasingly tasked with responding to overdose calls as a result of the widespread availability of highly potent and deadly fentanyl.

“This is not the heroin of 1993 that took my best friend in college; not the drugs of 1996 that killed my partner,” said Grayber, who supported HB 4002. “What we have on our streets today is more powerful, more insidious than we’ve ever seen before.”

She told the story of a recent call, in which she entered a home to find a man who had overdosed. The man’s skin was blue, Grayber said, and he was covered in vomit. His 2-year-old was curled on his chest.

“There was nothing we could do to bring him back,” said Grayber, who added she had responded to the man’s home six times. “We failed that man, but most of all we failed his daughter.”


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