How Oregon turned on its own trailblazing drug law: ‘not the utopia we were promised’

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A police officer writes a ticket for smoking drugs in public in downtown Portland, Oregon, on 25 January 2024. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Oregon

How Oregon turned on its own trailblazing drug law: ‘not the utopia we were promised’​


Three years ago, the state began a novel social experiment that put treatment over punishment – then came the backlash

Katia Riddle in Eugene and Portland

Wed 21 Feb 2024 07.00 EST


Holding his five-month-old daughter, Danny Schlabach sways gently on his feet in their small room at a youth shelter in Eugene, Oregon. Their room is scattered with the detritus of a new baby: A+D ointment, formula, baby shampoo, bottle brushes, six pairs of miniature shoes lined up in the closet.


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Schlabach, 23, is wildly in love with this child – his first. Her tiny fuchsia sweatsuit, her shock of dark hair. He’s raising her mostly alone. “I wasn’t really on the right track, until I got her,” he says. “When that happened I realized – I have to shape up.”

Housing has been a constant challenge in his life, given his history with drugs, addiction and arrest, and his troubled relationship with his daughter’s mom, and he marvels at his luck in finding a place to live that’s safe, free and comfortable. “I never want to live in a car with my kid,” he says. “But I’ve seen how it happens.”

The shelter where Schlabach and his daughter live is run by an organization called Looking Glass, and is funded primarily through Oregon’s Measure 110.

When voters approved Measure 110 in 2020, they made Oregon the scene of a novel social experiment in the US by decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of hard drugs and funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into substance abuse treatment.

The vote was celebrated as a groundbreaking step toward a compassionate approach to substance use disorders, one that prioritized treatment over punishment. But nearly three years after its passage, the law has become the subject of fierce debate as Oregon, like many US states, grapples with a spiraling opioid crisis.
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Oregon was a leader in this space. [Repealing Measure 110] will set us back

Haven Wheelock, harm-reduction advocate

In recent months, residents, business owners and law enforcement agents in Oregon have all pointed to spiraling drug use in downtowns, where people openly smoke fentanyl while others lie unconscious in doorways; in small towns, where mayors unaccustomed to homelessness are suddenly grappling with encampments; in terrifying newspaper stories about middle-class families grieving teenagers who lost their lives due to one bad pill.

Lawmakers are now considering a number of bills that would reinstate criminal penalties such as fines and jail time for drug possession – a decision that could come any day. A coalition led by prominent business owners have threatened to mobilize an effort to hobble the law even more by putting it back to the public in a ballot measure in the fall. Recent polling has shown more than half of voters support a total repeal.


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What happens next is seen as a national litmus test for public tolerance to a harm-reduction approach to addiction and drug use, particularly in cities like San Francisco, where lawmakers are grappling with similar complaints from residents over open-air drug use. While advocates acknowledge the measure hasn’t been perfect, many fear the backlash has been driven by emotion rather than data, and argue the state’s new system for dealing with addiction and substance use needs time to mature.

At the heart of all this is a question: what does society owe people like Schlabach, and to what extent should they be considered criminal?

For Haven Wheelock, a harm-reduction advocate whose works for an organization in Portland that has received funding from Measure 110, the danger of walking back the law is, in part, existential. “I think it’s going to make policymakers less brave,” she explained. “Oregon was a leader in this space. It will set us back.”

A bold vision, or a ‘dystopian nightmare’?

When Oregon voters passed Measure 110 with nearly 60% support, the vision that advocates laid out was grand.

The state would deconstruct the existing punitive and ineffective system that criminalized drugs, and build a new apparatus in its place. People would no longer face criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of substances like fentanyl and methamphetamine; long-calcified pathways through the criminal justice system that reinforced societal inequalities would be abandoned; treatment options for those struggling with addiction – funded with hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s legal marijuana tax – would be widely available.

But Measure 110 passed on the eve of a tsunami of twin public health crises in Oregon: an epidemic of cheap, widely available and extremely dangerous fentanyl, and a sharp escalation in the shortage of affordable housing.



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A person covered with a blanket walks past an encampment near Union Station in Portland in January. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Recent federal data show Oregon had the steepest increase in the country of overdose deaths since the pandemic started – by a staggering 1,500%. Nearly 1,000 people in Oregon died from opiate overdoses in 2022. Public health officials warn the crisis shows no signs of abating.
 

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Critics point to this steep overdose rise as a sign of Measure 110’s failing, but any definitive insight as to the law’s impact is likely years away. A recent study of its reach so far – by research organization RTI International – showed no correlation between the rise in overdoses and drug legalization. Other western states such as California and Washington are also overwhelmed by a devastating fentanyl crisis, the study’s authors point out, and have seen similar trends in overdoses and addiction without passing a sweeping decriminalization law like Oregon’s.

Still, there’s growing debate about whether Measure 110 has galvanized these problems or mitigated them, and how the law should be changed accordingly.

In early February, lawmakers held a public hearing on the debate over Measure 110. Speaking to a crowded room in Oregon’s capitol building, a 55-year-old police officer from a Portland suburb recounted watching a child die from an opioid overdose. After three decades on the job, said Erin Anderson, he rarely was emotional about work. This case got to him.

He was one of dozens of members of the public who had come to offer public testimony on Measure 110. Legislators, seated at a panel in front of him, listened somberly.[/SIZE][/SIZE]

Please address drug addiction and homelessness with real solutions, not political theater

Sandy Chung of the ACLU

“All of our attention was on that 15-year-old boy who lay on the floor, motionless and blue,” he said tearfully. “You guys – sorry,” he went on, his voice faltering. He made a final plea to the lawmakers. “I don’t think I can embrace another mother to tell her her son is gone. I need you to do the right thing.”

What constituted the right thing was not a matter of consensus in that room, or across the state.

“Please address drug addiction and homelessness,” Sandy Chung, executive director of the state’s ACLU chapter, asked legislators. “But do so with real solutions, not political theater.” Fentanyl, she pointed out, is also available in prisons. Punishing people with jail time, she argued, will not force them into recovery.

For others there testifying, especially business owners, the priority was putting an end to public drug use. Rob Stuart, the CEO of OnPoint Community Credit Union, said crime and public consumption of drugs has forced the company to spend more on security. His staff feel unsafe. “In the past year we’ve had 25 branch robberies,” he testified.

Recriminalization, Stuart argued, would be the only way to give law enforcement the tools to curtail public drug use.

‘People just don’t want to see it any more’

One thing people on both sides of this debate agree on: Measure 110 has not solved the problem of drug addiction in Oregon. Some parts of the law have failed spectacularly. A hotline set up for people to call as an alternative to receiving criminal penalties – meant to provide an on-ramp to treatment – has been widely acknowledged as ineffective.

A report by the Oregon secretary of state showed that, given how few people used the hotline in its first few years, each call cost roughly $7,000.

“There’s no quick fixes to the crisis we’re in,” says Wheelock, the harm reduction advocate, who supports the law and also works in the field of recovery. “I’m confident that without Measure 110 things would be far worse.”



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A police officer holds a card for drug use health screenings and services, on 25 January 2024. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Wheelock stands in downtown Portland at the needle exchange site for the organization she works for, Outside In. She and her team have fostered a sense of community with substance users here, but they stop short of allowing drug use on site. “Please do not buy, sell, or use drugs within a three block radius of here,” reads a sign on the door. “Our neighbors hate us and want to shut us down and it makes us look bad.”

Her organization has received more than $1m from Measure 110. They use it in part to pay for the harm reduction services they hand out – clean needles and pipes, overdose kits. They see an estimated 100 people a day here.

Wheelock observes that for all the controversy it’s caused, recriminalization may not have much immediate impact. Measure 110 funding for organizations like hers will likely continue. With an already overwhelmed system of law enforcement and public defense, it’s unclear how aggressively the police will be able to enforce any new laws.

Oregonians are, understandably, she says, growing weary of homelessness and the fentanyl crisis. “I know there are a lot of people that really hope they just, like, lock everyone up and throw away the key,” she says. “I think people who just want it to be different and just don’t want to see it any more.”

‘You have to build trust’

The debate over Measure 110 isn’t just raging in Oregon’s capital. A little over two hours south of Portland, with a population of close to 200,000, Eugene has long been known as a hippie town, a mecca for stoners and nature lovers.

But conservative streaks run through its suburbs. Recently, as in the rest of the state, Measure 110 has been in the region’s crosshairs.

At a community forum in January, the Eugene district attorney Christopher Parosa summed up the recent prevailing mood. “What has developed in the last three years is not the utopian Shangri-La that we have been promised with ballot Measure 110,” said Parosa, “but rather a dystopian nightmare that is akin to a grim Hollywood movie.”

For Schlabach, though, the law has helped turn his life around. He recalls his first time being incarcerated. He was 14 and arrested for stealing a car. Schlabach grew up in his early years speaking Spanish, though he can’t remember it any more. Adopted when he was four, he never bonded much with his new family members, who are white. “I was with them for a good chunk of time of my life,” he says. “But they weren’t really my people.”

He went to high school in a facility for incarcerated youth, where he graduated at the top of his class with a 3.9 GPA. But when he got out, he says, he didn’t have the skills to be emancipated. He took some wrong turns. He started smoking fentanyl. “I guess I ended up in my underwear” one night, he recalls. “Like somewhere in front of a 7-Eleven, wrapped in a blanket.”




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A police officer issues a drug possession citation in downtown Portland. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Among the unique features of Measure 110 is that the treatment it funds comes with relatively few stipulations. That’s especially helpful with treating this population of homeless young people, says Chad Westphal, president and CEO of the organization that runs this shelter, Looking Glass. Often giving them something as basic as a phone charger, a tent, a meal, shoes that fit or foot fungal treatment can get them in the door.

“You have to build trust with them before you understand the next level of needs,” says Westphal. For years, he and his staff had watched as this vulnerable population slipped through the cracks. “Often they had addiction levels that were off the charts,” he explains. “And they were living in camps with much older people, getting victimized. That was the group that we decided to focus on with the Measure 110 funds.”


I know there are a lot of people that really hope they just, like, lock everyone up and throw away the key
Haven Wheelock

The funding has allowed Looking Glass to build a shelter customized to the liminal stage of human development between adolescent and adult. With a low barrier to entry, staff try to keep the rules to a minimum. Drugs, guns and personal items have to be left in a “contraband” locker in the lobby. There are no requirements around sobriety, but there is an expectation that drugs and alcohol are not used on the premises. Pets and babies are allowed, with some restrictions. Residents can come and go as they please. Couples can share a room.

Schlabach is taking it day by day. He says this place adds some critical structure for him and his little family, but he recognizes it won’t be forever. His goals include getting a job and trying to make it work with his baby’s mom.

His years of incarceration still weigh heavy on him. The threat of returning there has been a factor in his recovery. But far more motivating is the desire to spend every minute he can with his daughter, in whom he recognizes a chance to right the wrongs of his own childhood. “Like, I only had like three hours of sleep last night,” he says, chuckling. “But I’m still going. I’m still good. I’m young. I got this.”

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a half-assed policy implementation and they ready to run back to decades old policy that makes things worse overall.:snoop:
But the problem is we know why it was a half-assed implementation. They totally believed that white people would flock to the services without fear instead of just continuing to use without legal repercussions. Also, that it would create the “air” of allowing you to try drugs without judgement or recreationally use with protection.

And we know why they are ready to run back to the previous laws…… Because most white people have an innate need to see people outside their personal circle punished unless they can “relate” or “understand” them. They don’t see it working for their sons or daughters, so they blame others with addiction for the problem. And then when those laws are reinstated, they will beg for leniency in their circles’ cases, because they aren’t like the others.

This is what happens when you institute something because your state is 85% white and it’ll help majority white people. And this is without even going into politics, socio-economics or what we know about addiction and the social stigmas associated with it.
 

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Oregon lawmakers pass bill to recriminalize drug possession
FILE - A person holds drug paraphernalia near the Washington Center building on SW Washington Street, April 4, 2023, in downtown Portland, Ore. A bill recriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs was passed by the Oregon Legislature, Friday, March 1, 2024, undoing a key part of the state’s first-in-the-nation drug decriminalization law as governments struggle to respond to the deadliest overdose crisis in U.S. history. (Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP, File)
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A bill recriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs was passed by the Oregon Legislature on Friday, undoing a key part of the state’s first-in-the-nation drug decriminalization law as governments struggle to respond to the deadliest overdose crisis in U.S. history.

The state Senate approved House Bill 4002 in a 21-8 vote after the House passed it 51-7 on Thursday. The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Tina Kotek, who said in January that she is open to signing a bill that would roll back decriminalization, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

“With this bill, we are doubling down on our commitment to make sure Oregonians have access to the treatment and care that they need,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, of Portland, one of the bill’s authors, adding that its passage will “be the start of real and transformative change for our justice system.”

The measure makes the possession of small amounts of drugs such as heroin or methamphetamine a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail. It enables police to confiscate the drugs and crack down on their use on sidewalks and in parks. Drug treatment is to be offered as an alternative to criminal penalties.

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The bill also aims to make it easier to prosecute people who sell drugs. It increases access to addiction medication, and to obtain and keep housing without facing discrimination for using that medication.

Decriminalization of personal-use amounts of drugs, OK’d by voters in 2020 under Ballot Measure 110, was supposed to move hundreds of millions of dollars of marijuana tax revenues into drug treatment and harm reduction programs. That didn’t translate into an improved care network for a state with the second-highest rate of substance use disorder in the nation and ranked 50th for access to treatment, according to an audit report released in 2023.

And with Oregon experiencing one of the nation’s largest spikes in overdose deaths, Republican pressure intensified, and a well-funded campaign group called for a ballot measure that would further weaken Measure 110.

Researchers have said it was too soon to determine whether the law contributed to the overdose surge, and supporters of the decriminalization measure say the decadeslong approach of arresting people for possessing and using drugs didn’t work.


FILE - Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek speaks during a signing ceremony in Washington, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. A bill recriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs was passed by the Oregon Legislature, Friday, March 1, 2024, undoing a key part of the state’s first-in-the-nation drug decriminalization law as governments struggle to respond to the deadliest overdose crisis in U.S. history. The bill now heads to the desk of Kotek, who said in January that she is open to signing a bill that would roll back decriminalization, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
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Lawmakers who opposed the bill voiced those concerns. Some called it a return to the war on drugs that disproportionally impacted and imprisoned millions of Black men.

Democratic Sen. Lew Frederick, of Portland, one of four Black senators, said the bill had too many flaws and that testimony on the bill heard again and again was that substance use disorder requires primarily a medical response.

“I’m concerned that it (the bill) will attempt to use the same tactics of the past, and fail, only to reinforce the punishment narrative that has failed for 50 years,” he said, adding that the measure could move more people into the court system without making them healthier.
 

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I can even really pretend to understand the world of drug use.

Feels like every few years, a new drug is laced into the existing mainstays and killing a bunch of people or stores are putting another item behind glass to make it harder to purchase.

Just seems like our culture is just ingrained with addiction.
 

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Took a random trip out there without knowing about the law and it was :scust:

Streets smelled like piss, drugged out people everywhere and ambulances running back and forth helping with overdoses. Some were dealing with general addictions while others seem to be there for a “party”. Hate to say it but addicts have the mind of children, they arent in the mindset of making well educated decisions like checking into a rehab facility. Law deserved to be bushed.
 

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Took a random trip out there without knowing about the law and it was :scust:

Streets smelled like piss, drugged out people everywhere and ambulances running back and forth helping with overdoses. Some were dealing with general addictions while others seem to be there for a “party”. Hate to say it but addicts have the mind of children, they arent in the mindset of making well educated decisions like checking into a rehab facility. Law deserved to be bushed.

the law deserved to be bushed rather than addressing the lack of public bathrooms right?
 

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Decriminalizing and providing safe use isn’t really in the public interests if folks using just further impede on the general public.
 
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