A group of political and business leaders are urging Oregon’s legislators to reform the state’s permissive drug laws in the beginning of 2024. If lawmakers don’t act, that coalition will bring a ballot measure to the very voters who decriminalized drugs three years ago.
“Oregonians still believe that the best strategy is a minimal use of criminal justice resources to encourage people into treatment and recovery,” former state legislator and onetime director of the Oregon Department of Corrections Max Williams said. “But they also realize the tools that we’ve currently given law enforcement … are not working.”
Nearly 60% of Oregon voters passed Measure 110 in 2020, decriminalizing personal use amounts of all drugs and redirecting swaths of the state’s marijuana tax revenue to fund grants for addiction services.
The rollout was beleaguered by bureaucratic flubs and a brief implementation timeline. It also coincided with the nationwide fentanyl crisis. More than 100,000 people across the country died from a drug overdose in 2022, a 45% increase since 2019, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Now, polls consistently show Oregonians souring against the unprecedented (and so far unrepeated) law. The Coalition to Fix and Improve Ballot Measure 110 has commissioned three this year, the most recent of which found 74% of respondents favored recriminalizing possession of fentanyl, heroin and meth and making treatment required, not voluntary, as an alternative to jail.
A full 86% of respondents also said Oregon should immediately ban the use of hard drugs in public.
“Oregon has turned into an international spectacle, and I think we looked at each other and realized that we made an enormous mistake,” Portland trial attorney Kristin Olson, who voted in favor of the ballot measure and describes herself as a lifelong liberal, previously told Fox News.
So the coalition, backed by big names like Nike co-founder Phil Knight and Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle, has put forth a voter initiative they believe would put the state back on the right track.
Their proposal doesn’t completely repeal the law. It still prioritizes diversion, treatment and recovery over prosecution and jail, but recriminalizes possession of small amounts of hard drugs and completely bans public drug use. It also aims to improve oversight of how tax dollars are spent and beef up penalties for drug dealing.
When Measure 110 took effect, it made possession of small amounts of drugs punishable by just a $100 fine, which suspects could have waived if they completed a substance use assessment. But less than 1% of people ticketed have completed a treatment evaluation, according to Oregon Judicial Department data.
“Writing somebody a ticket that is oftentimes less than what you would get for parking illegally in downtown Portland is not motivating people to seek treatment and recovery,” Williams told Fox News. “The data for that is overwhelming.”
But supporters of Measure 110 say the 1% figure doesn’t capture the more than 7,000 people who received substance use treatment in the first quarter of 2023. A further 11,000 clients utilized peer support services and 14,000 accessed harm reduction supplies like clean needles, smoking kits and naloxone, according to state data.
Oregon has so far approved $264 million in grants for more than 200 service providers, according to the most recent audit from the Secretary of State’s office.
Measure 110 supporters worry a return to criminalization will be “harmful and ineffective.”
“It re-stigmatizes people who need help. People are less likely to get help when they are stigmatized,” Tera Hurst, executive director of the Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance, a coalition of state and national groups that supported the law, told The Oregonian.
And although overdose deaths in the state increased nearly 75% from 2020 to 2022, researchers at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine wrote in a September paper that they found no evidence of an association between decriminalization and fatal overdose rates in Oregon. The same was said for Washington, where drugs were decriminalized for just over two months after the state Supreme Court threw out the previous drug possession law.
Williams conceded that decriminalization did not create Oregon’s current overdose, crime and livability issues, but argues that it “exacerbated every one of these situations.”
He said it’s telling that, three years later, Oregon is still the only state to have decriminalized drugs.
“Nobody’s looked at Oregon and said, ‘Wow, this is a model of fabulous success,'” he said. “If anything, a state like our friends to the north in Washington, I think, quickly moved to reinstate criminal sanctions associated with possession of these hard drugs because they did not want to follow the pattern that Oregon had followed.”
The Oregon legislature heard testimony on Measure 110 earlier this month ahead of its upcoming short session in February. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler urged lawmakers to criminalize public drug use, and downtown business owners blamed the law for turning the city into a “virtual drug supermarket.”
If the legislature doesn’t take action, Williams said the coalition is prepared to run its proposal as a ballot measure. But they’d prefer not to wait for November.
“There really are people that are dying as a result of this policy,” he said. Waiting “just delays the crisis that we’re in that much longer.”
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