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Ore. police to offer choice between arrest or drop-off center under county’s drug deflection program

If the person’s only crime is low-level drug possession, and they’re not harassing people, police in Multnomah County must give them a chance to avoid prosecution

Oregon Drug Law

FILE - A person holds drug paraphernalia near the Washington Center building on SW Washington Street, April 4, 2023, in downtown Portland, Ore. On Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, Democratic lawmakers in Oregon unveiled a sweeping new bill that would undo a key part of the state’s first-in-the-nation drug decriminalization law. The bill would recriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs as a low-level misdemeanor. (Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP, File)

Dave Killen/AP

By Noelle Crombie

PORTLAND, Ore. — Starting this fall, people found with street drugs in Multnomah County will get a choice: Police can arrest them or deliver them to a drop-off center of sorts.

Under the proposal now taking shape after state lawmakers overhauled Measure 110, the county won’t require people caught with drugs to enroll in substance abuse treatment.

It also won’t limit how often a person can opt for so-called deflection over arrest.

Police will have authority to seize street drugs from people, but they otherwise won’t have discretion in low-level drug possession cases, according to county officials.

If that’s the person’s only apparent crime — and they’re not harassing people or trespassing — police in Multnomah County must give them a chance to avoid prosecution.

The person will only need to check in at the drop-off center to satisfy the requirements of deflection, said Alicia Temple , a policy adviser to Chair Jessica Vega Pederson . Vega Pedersen is leading the effort to develop the county’s approach.

The county won’t require people to undergo a substance abuse screening or get help for their addiction. They will be free to walk away after checking in.

But officials hope the center will serve as a gateway where people can connect with a professional who is in long-term recovery, known as a peer, as well as get referrals to housing and treatment, including longer-term detox withdrawal management, though those services won’t be offered on site. Detox is the first step in treating people addicted to fentanyl, the potent synthetic opioid.

The proposal calls for the site to have about a dozen beds for people to safely emerge from acute intoxication.

Temple described the broad strokes of the county’s still-evolving approach in an interview Monday with The Oregonian /OregonLive.

Key questions remain, such as whether police will place people in handcuffs — essentially arresting them — to deliver them to the center. Officials are also still working out whether it will be left to officers to drive people to the location.

The county’s plan comes in response to the Legislature’s vote this year to gut the state’s drug decriminalization law. Still, leading lawmakers leaned on counties to develop plans that “deflect” people found with small amounts of drugs away from the criminal justice system and jail. Under the law that’s set to take effect Sept. 1 , people found with fentanyl pills and other hard drugs can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Vega Pederson is working on the plan with her staff and community leaders including Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt , Portland Police Chief Bob Day and Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell. A Multnomah County judge, a representative of Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office, treatment providers and a defense lawyer also are taking part.

Temple, who previously served as senior policy adviser to former House Speaker Dan Rayfield , said the county is in the final stages of identifying the property where the deflection center will operate.

She said the county’s approach gives police the ability to take drugs off the street while also steering people suffering from addiction away from jail.

“The reality is that we know people have a better chance of entering recovery the more often they’re introduced to the recovery system and that jail is not the appropriate way to treat individuals,” she said.

Stephanie Howard , Wheeler’s director of community safety, has taken part in the talks and called the approach a good start. She said she expects the program to expand as more services come on line.

The proposal, she said, gives police the ability to relocate people openly using drugs.

“It’s better for us to take these incremental steps and even though the first iteration isn’t the be all, end all that any of us, I think, would love to be able to offer, it’s a start,” she said.

Mike Benner , a spokesperson for the police chief, said Day’s top concern boils down to resources.

“He’s concerned the lack of addiction services will result in people not getting the help they so desperately need,” Benner said.

Day feels hopeful about officers’ authority under the new law to respond to complaints from the public, Benner said.

“For instance, a business owner can report drug use outside of a business and officers can respond and move the individual along,” he said.

With a little more than two months to go before criminal penalties for drug possession kick in, it appears people will face starkly different requirements depending on where they live.

The deflection programs envisioned in Washington and Clackamas counties include more structure and requirements, according to interviews with each county’s district attorney.

Clackamas County District Attorney John Wentworth said his county continues to refine its policy, but he sees an approach that emphasizes compliance with treatment requirements.

He said he anticipates people will be required to “meaningfully engage” in the county’s deflection program for 90 days, though he said the details of what the county considers success are still being hammered out.

He said even if the person ends up in court, treatment remains the goal.

“It’s our way as a system to say, you know, we really mean it, we really want you to get help and get treatment,” he said.

Washington County plans a similar approach, said District Attorney Kevin Barton .

He said police will either make an arrest or issue citations that come with future court dates.

From there, a team that includes a prosecutor, probation official, health and human services and treatment staff will go over each case to determine if the person is eligible for the deflection program, he said.

Prosecutors will also review the case to determine if it meets the qualifications for prosecution.

He said people will get several chances to enter the county’s deflection program, including before their first court appearance. Once in the program, they’ll be required to undergo substance abuse screenings and, if recommended, treatment.

Washington and Clackamas counties plan to limit how often people can take part in deflection, Barton said.

In Washington County, people will have to show “successful engagement” in substance use treatment backed up by feedback from providers, treatment records and clean urinalysis results, as well as show that they are likely to continue to take part in treatment to meet the county’s requirements for completing the program.

“It doesn’t mean completely sober,” Barton said. “It means you are making good and positive progress toward the goal.”

If the person picks up a new criminal charge for anything other than minor drug possession or they fail to show up for court or fail to engage in treatment, they would wash out of the program, Barton said.

In Multnomah County, some worry the approach doesn’t represent enough of a change from Measure 110. And they complained that the planning has so far failed to include the community.

County Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards said the public likely expects the new policy to be “very different” from the mostly hands-off approach that existed under Measure 110, when police did little more than hand out tickets to people caught with drugs.

She said the county needs to solicit input from the community.

“I think it should be a much more public process,” she said.

Aaron Schmautz , president of the Portland Police Association , the police union, said he has not taken part in planning meetings due to what appears to be a communications breakdown with the county.

A county spokesperson said Schmautz was invited to a June 3 planning meeting. Public records show the message went to an email Schmautz has not used since he transitioned to the police union leadership three years ago. Messages sent to that email get a response directing people to use his updated union address. He said no county official called or texted him to extend an invitation; the county confirmed they did not follow up by phone.

He said Multnomah County’s proposal doesn’t appear to represent a significant departure from Measure 110; under that law, officers could issue tickets for non-criminal violations to people found with drugs. People who received tickets were encouraged to call a state hotline for substance abuse screening and referrals to services.

Oregon Judicial Department data shows nearly 9,000 Measure 110-related cases have been filed statewide since the law’s inception; few people showed up in court or called the hotline for a screening.

Schmautz said police have clamored for “real time access” to services, such as detox, for people in crisis.

The proposed policy appears only to extend officers’ involvement in each contact, he said.

“Nothing has changed, except instead of the interaction taking five minutes, now it takes a half hour to an hour,” he said. “And you may end up with the same person having that kind of encounter with law enforcement four or five times in a day.”

Nathan Vasquez , the district attorney-elect, said the plan “falls short of what House Bill 4002 envisioned and what I believe is necessary to help move us in the right direction.”

He said Schmidt has declined to include him in planning talks; the DA’s term ends in December.

Schmidt’s spokesperson said the DA is “in agreement with the direction the program is heading” and that Schmidt advised the county on who should be eligible for deflection and “what deflection success should look like.”

Though the new system won’t send people to jail, at least one treatment provider wondered whether it would make much of a difference.

“This is just shuffling them around,” said Joe Bazeghi , director of engagement at Recovery Works NW, a privately run medical and behavioral health center. “And it’ll be known by the users, it’ll be known by the sellers and it’ll be known by the police and so we’re just kind of going back to maybe a slightly less harmful version of what we’ve been doing all along.”

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