Trending Topics

Ore. police view drug decriminalization law as ineffective, study shows

LEOs interviewed said the law decriminalizing small amounts of heroin and other street drugs is ineffective and they believe it negatively affects public safety


The study is based on 23 interviews and focus groups conducted with two state agencies, four sheriff’s departments and four police departments across six Oregon counties.

Beth Nakamura

By Gosia Wozniacka

PORTLAND, Ore. — A new report from Portland State University – part of a multi-year study – says law enforcement officers in Oregon see Measure 110, Oregon’s law decriminalizing small amounts of heroin and other street drugs, as ineffective and believe it negatively affects public safety.

The study is based on 23 interviews and focus groups conducted with two state agencies, four sheriff’s departments and four police departments across six Oregon counties, half urban and half rural.

Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved Measure 110 in 2020 – a historic first in the nation. The measure also set aside $300 million for recovery and drug treatment. The ground-breaking effort was billed as a way to move people out of jails and into treatment beds.

The most common complaint from officers in the study is that the measure has created a lack of accountability for people found with user amounts of drugs. The new law reduced misdemeanor drug possession to a non-criminal violation on par with a traffic offense. The violations give people a choice to call a statewide hotline to complete a screening for a substance abuse disorder or pay a $100 fine.

But officers said there is no follow-up or recourse for those who have not paid the fine or completed the drug assessment. State data shows most people don’t do either.

As a result, most of the officers interviewed said they have given out few or no Measure 110 citations. Most said it was “not worth the time” and that they could share information about treatment resources without citing someone.

The research tracks with earlier reports of law enforcement agencies handing out few violations for drug possession under the new law. More recent data shows an uptick in tickets, particularly in Portland.

As of last month, data from the Oregon Judicial Department shows Portland police are on track to issue more tickets for drug possession this month than any previous month since the measure took effect – though the number continues to be small. Portland police issued 36 tickets in the first eight days of May, doubling the number of citations officers handed out in April.

In recent days, confronted with the proliferation of open drug use in downtown Portland, police have resorted to issuing even more citations.

In all, Portland police have issued 419 tickets since the law rolled out in February 2021 — fewer than half the number given out by Grants Pass police, according to the agency. In total, law enforcement officers across the state have issued about 4,450 citations since the law began.

But the officers in the study — conducted by faculty in PSU’s Criminal Justice Policy Research Institute – said they’re skeptical of the citations’ ability to motivate those with a substance use disorder to voluntarily call the hotline – 503-575-3769 – or seek treatment and other resources without the external pressures of the legal system and required assistance.

“I think as it stands now, it’s a $100 citation and there’s absolutely no consequence to not paying. I mean, there’s not even a license suspension or anything else that comes with other citations. So, there’s just zero consequence to not paying that fine or not calling for the assessment,” one officer from a rural police department told researchers. The study does not identify any of the officers by name.

According to Lines for Life, which staffs the hotline, just 189 people have completed a screening since the program launched.

The officers’ complaints match closely with criticism of the measure raised during the election by some in the drug treatment and recovery community, including that it would undermine the role of courts in getting people into drug treatment and would not guarantee much-needed treatment beds. Supporters argued that the U.S. drug policy has filled the country’s jails with nonviolent offenders – especially generations of Black people – who need treatment instead of incarceration.

In January, an audit from Oregon’s Secretary of State Office showed that implementation of the measure – particularly the distribution of the $300 million for recovery and treatment services – has been off to a slow start and largely ineffective.

The audit blamed the state’s health authority for inadequately supporting the volunteer council convened to distribute grants to providers across Oregon’s 36 counties, lambasted council members for a lack of expertise, which slowed funding approval, and blasted the state and service providers for inconsistently collecting data to track the measure’s effectiveness.

Officers also told the PSU researchers they worry the measure has hindered investigations and arrests related to other crimes.

Because the measure reclassified the possession of controlled substances to a noncriminal violation, officers said they lost a reasonable cause to conduct searches of suspects, affecting their ability to make arrests for “collateral crimes” that can accompany drug possession such as a weapons offense or stolen property offense.

Officers also said the measure has hurt their ability to recruit buyers as confidential informants because they can no longer use the threat of an arrest as a bargaining tool. The dearth of informants, in turn, hinders investigations of commercial-scale drug operations, they said.

Those limitations, coupled with the step-back from the prosecution of minor drug offenses, has led to the perception that law enforcement in Oregon is reactive, rather than proactive, the interviewees said, putting a damper on officer morale and motivation.

Arrests for drug possession plummeted across Oregon in the year after the measure’s passage. Data from Oregon’s Statistical Transparency of Policing program shows that as of 2021, pro-active stops remain 31% below the average monthly stops from late 2019, the latest data available.

Despite the challenges, not all officers favored going back to traditional drug enforcement tactics, the PSU study shows. Officers suggested the current system could be reformed to include ways to compel or encourage treatment participation.

Officers also said treatment resources needed to be further developed to meet rising demand.

Over the next two years, the study plans to look at impacts of the measure on prosecutions, sentencing and public safety.

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.