Oregon's drug decriminalization law off to a patchy start
The law allows police to issue citations, but data shows few people are seeking treatment
By Noelle Crombie
GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Nine months into the nation’s first-of-its-kind experiment to decriminalize hard drugs, the new approach has done little so far to connect people with treatment even as statistics show the state is on track to reach a record for opiate-related overdose deaths.
Since Measure 110 went into effect in February, arrests for drug possession have plummeted across Oregon from a daily average of about 1,200 to 200. This year’s arrests tend to be for dealer quantities, state officials said.
The plunge was expected as the new law set up a system for police to instead issue tickets for small amounts of drugs like heroin, methamphetamine and LSD. The non-criminal 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 so far, police agencies generally haven’t embraced the plan — handing out only an estimated 1,280 tickets statewide, most often for methamphetamine and heroin, according to the latest available data from the Oregon Judicial Department.
Just 55 tickets have been issued in Multnomah County, five in Clackamas County and 34 in Washington County. A half-dozen rural counties haven’t issued any at all, the figures show.
Ten juveniles were among those cited.
Even when officers have given tickets, few people follow through.
About 600 have failed to show up in court, according to the Judicial Department.
And only 51 people have called the hotline and completed the 25-minute assessment, according to Lines for Life, the nonprofit that works on substance abuse and suicide prevention. The hotline acts as an entry point for referral services, but the law doesn’t require people to pursue treatment.
By far, the callers are going through the motions: Only eight asked for treatment information and 35 declined information about those services, saying they called just to meet the requirements of the new law, according to the organization’s data. The remaining eight reported they were already receiving treatment services.
William Nunemann, the addictions recovery program supervisor at Lines for Life, oversees a team of six counselors and peer recovery mentors who staff the hotline.
They offer resources and even three-way calls with treatment facilities to see if the caller can get an appointment. So far, Nunemann said, none of the callers have taken them up on the offer.
Dwight Holton, chief executive officer at Lines for Life, said Oregon clearly needs to do a better job of directing people to the hotline.
“We are not making that connection from the moment the person is cited to the health assessment,” he said.
It’s a slow start to the promise of Measure 110, which sought to upend the way Oregon addresses addiction. The new approach represented a pivot from police, jail and courts toward treatment and recovery. The measure, with primary financial support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon and out-of-state groups pressing for drug policy reform, passed in November with nearly 60 percent of the vote.
The law redirects millions of marijuana tax revenue from schools and other public agencies to substance abuse treatment and services to support those recovering from addiction, but the bulk of the money hasn’t yet been distributed.
Tera Hurst, executive director of the Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance, an organization helping to execute the new law, urged patience.
She said the COVID-19 pandemic likely factored into the low participation figures.
“For me the numbers are representative of a brand new law that is extremely different from what we used to do and it’s going to take time to really tell a story,” Hurst said.
‘EXACTLY WHAT I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE’
Josephine County is one of the few communities where police have adapted to the new system, topping the list for issuing the most citations.
The southern Oregon county’s statistics are driven by the Grants Pass Police Department, which says it has handed out about 250 tickets to date, according to the agency.
Grants Pass Capt. Todd Moran said about 35 people have received multiple citations in the working class city of nearly 40,000.
People who get the tickets generally understand they don’t face a consequence for failing to follow up, Moran said.
“They give them the citation and they’re gone,” he said.
The law reduced misdemeanor drug possession to a violation on par with a traffic offense. It applies to people with small amounts of drugs including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, LSD, psilocybin, methadone and oxycodone. For instance, the law applies to those possessing less than a gram of heroin and less than two grams of methamphetamine and cocaine.
It also reduced penalties for what were previously felony drug possession cases involving larger quantities. Under Measure 110, most of those crimes are misdemeanors.
The policy had the backing of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, the same group that helped fund Oregon’s successful marijuana legalization effort in 2014. Supporters see the novel policy as a potential blueprint for other states.
Grants Pass Police Chief Warren Hensman said some police agencies may have decided the citations aren’t worth the time and effort. He said he wants to give them a try.
“We have a drug problem with heroin, meth and pills,” Hensman said, “and I think it’s important as a leader, as the police chief, to try to slow it down.”
Still, he said, the law hasn’t translated into more treatment access in his county. He worries the state has embarked on an ambitious drug decriminalization campaign without ensuring an adequate safety net.
District Attorney Joshua Eastman said drug court participation in Josephine County has dropped by about a third since the law began.
“It’s kind of exactly what I thought it would be,” Eastman said. “It’s decriminalization with none of the promised treatment.”
The impact of the new law on drug courts statewide isn’t yet clear. The specialty courts, common around Oregon and the country, are an alternative to incarceration and provide close court supervision, sanctions and support to help people with drug and alcohol addiction transition to a sober and law-abiding life.
A spokesperson for Multnomah County Circuit Court, which operates multiple drug courts, said Friday the court hadn’t analyzed its data.
TOO EARLY TO TELL
Supporters said it’s too early to draw conclusions.
Overhauling a system that often did little more than cycle those with addiction through jails and courtrooms will take time, they said.
Hurst said the long-term effort is just getting started.
Meanwhile, she said, people who may have otherwise been arrested and jailed no longer face the long-term consequences that come from criminal convictions.
The state has distributed $33 million in grants to 70 organizations statewide working on treatment and harm reduction programs, such as needle exchanges and overdose prevention and education, she said.
The state will spend another $250 million to $270 million in the coming months to establish a statewide system of county-based networks that will provide treatment and a wide-range of treatment-related services, Hurst said.
“We are shifting from the criminal justice system to the health care system,” she said. “That is not going to happen overnight and it’s ultimately going to have a positive and transformational impact on people with substance use issues.”
Mike Marshall, executive director of Oregon Recovers, an advocacy organization representing people who are recovering from addiction and workers who help them, said the state can’t afford to wait.
According to the latest data from the Oregon Health Authority, opioid overdose visits to emergency rooms and urgent care centers are on the rise this year and eclipsed each of the past two years.
Oregon recorded 206 unintentional opioid overdose deaths in the first four months of the year, compared with 462 for all of 2020 and 280 in 2019, according to the latest data.
Marshall, who opposed Measure 110, said the state should move urgently to fill in major gaps in treatment and addiction services, but the governor’s office has failed to provide strong leadership.
For starters, he said, Brown’s office should direct law enforcement officers to issue the same drug possession citation statewide — a change public health experts, police officials and the governor said they support.
“And it can’t just be fine print on it,” Marshall said. “It has to say, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do to clear this ticket’ and it needs to invite people to call.”
Brown’s spokesperson, Elizabeth Merah, pointed to large investments the state has made in areas of mental health and addiction services. Three years ago, Brown declared substance abuse disorder a public health crisis in Oregon and she has supported funding for mental health, affordable housing and treatment and recovery programs.
“Drug and alcohol misuse, overdose, and addiction … remain persistent, costly and devastating problems for Oregonians, with far-reaching impacts on our children and families,” said Merah in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Law enforcement agencies, other first responders and crisis care providers also face staffing shortages that are “complicating the implementation of new strategies and interventions across the board,” she said.
Brown directed multiple agencies to develop retention bonuses for workers, Merah said. The state plans to distribute $20 million to workers engaged in emergency and crisis response in the coming weeks.
“We hope this will stabilize the workforce so that services are more available for Oregonians in need,” Merah said.
Merah said Brown’s office also is “exploring other options,” including increasing training for police on changes under the new law.
‘THEY DON’T HAVE A PLACE TO GO’
In Josephine County, the number of people who voluntarily check themselves into a sobering center is one indicator of how few treatment options are available in the county.
The facility was among a half-dozen programs that serve the county to receive funding under Measure 110, according to the Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance. Those programs received about $2 million from the first round of state money.
The converted recycling plant holds a dozen spare cells for people under the influence of drugs or alcohol to sober up. The 5-year-old space admitted 143 people in September, 78 of them had checked themselves in.
People can stay up to 24 hours at a time. Many are regulars who return again and again, said Heather Getz, who works at the reception desk.
“They don’t have a place to go,” she said. “They just go back to the streets, they get intoxicated and they come back here.”
Grants Pass has seen 59 drug overdoses so far this year with five deaths, according to police data. Police administration of narcan, a drug that can reverse drug overdoses, has skyrocketed since 2018. That year, four people received narcan. So far this year, that number has climbed to 80, nearly double last year’s figures.
Getz, 41, is in recovery from drugs, including meth, and alcohol and has been sober for almost a decade. Her views of the new law are mixed.
On the one hand, she said, her own long drug-related felony history wreaked havoc on her life and made it difficult to find work, housing and buy a gun. She wishes she had the benefit of not having so many convictions that have cost her thousands in court fees. She said she’s paying those fees all these years later and still owes the court an estimated $11,000.
But she said sitting in a jail cell worrying about going to prison forced her to reckon with her own addiction. She credits 18 months of close supervision by the local drug court with saving her life.
She worries about people living in the grip of addiction.
“Now people are falling through the cracks,” she said, “and there aren’t repercussions for their actions.”
Hensman, the Grants Pass police chief, said he’ll encourage his officers to write tickets for two years and then he’ll analyze the data to see if it’s making a difference.
Still, Hensman is pragmatic.
“Anyway you look at it, at the end of the day, if people do not want to move into treatment,” he said, “they are not going to.”
The Lines for Life hotline number for a health screening is open to anyone. The number to call in the Portland metro area is 503-575-3769 and 541-575-3769 for the rest of the state.
Lines for Life also operates a drug and alcohol helpline for anyone seeking help for themselves or others. That number is 800-923-4357.
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