Oregon Lawmakers Send Bill Overturning Voter-Approved Drug Decriminalization Law To Governor’s Desk

“We need to put a stake in the heart of the decriminalization because it is not compassionate to say, ‘Drugs are a choice and it’s OK if you make that choice.’”

By Ben Botkin, Oregon Capital Chronicle

The Legislature’s proposal to overhaul the state’s response to the fentanyl addiction and overdose crisis cleared a major hurdle on Friday with passage by the Senate.

The bipartisan vote of 21-8 came a day after a similar 51-7 endorsement in the House, making the end of a long legislative journey that started last fall. House Bill 4002 now goes to Gov. Tina Kotek’s (D) office for her signature. The governor’s office had no immediate comment about the bill, which strikes a compromise between Republicans and Democrats and comes after widespread disgruntlement over Measure 110 and a move to repeal that voter-approved law that made Oregon the first state in the nation to decriminalize drugs.

The bill would dial that back, enacting a new misdemeanor charge for drug possession, with the goal of encouraging people to enter treatment programs rather than go to jail.  Drug users would only face jail time if they violated the terms of their probation.

“I can’t stress enough that inaction is not an option,” said Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton and co-chair of the joint addiction committee that shepherded the bill through both chambers.

The bill’s passage disappointed advocates who successfully pushed for drug decriminalization in 2020, when voters passed Measure 110. The proposal would keep intact the marijuana revenue for addiction services and programs in Measure 110, which has led to the distribution of more than $276 million for treatment, harm reduction, mentoring services and housing programs.

Democrats and Republicans reached the deal with input from police chiefs, sheriffs and district attorneys after law enforcement raised concerns that an initial proposal with a low-level misdemeanor was too soft. In this bill, a person would face up to six months in jail if their probation were revoked. In the earlier version, the low-level misdemeanor carried potential jail time of up to 30 days. People would be offered an early release from jail if they entered inpatient or outpatient treatment.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, praised the bill as a solid compromise that’s needed to prevent people from committing suicide while waiting for scarce treatment.

“We need to put a stake in the heart of the decriminalization because it is not compassionate to say, ‘Drugs are a choice and it’s OK if you make that choice,’” Knopp said. “It’s not OK.”

Measure 110 enacted a system of $100 citations for those caught with small quantities of drugs that a person could avoid if they obtained a health assessment. But the system failed to work, with suspects ignoring the fines and pursuit of treatment.

It didn’t take long for police and the public to turn against Measure 110, and by last year a majority said they would support repealing all or part of Measure 110. A well-funded group behind a ballot initiative to repeal much of Measure 110 released a statement Thursday saying if the Kotek signs HB 4002, they’ll drop their campaign.

But an Oregon nonprofit that advocates on behalf of incarcerated people has threatened to sue over a technicality to try to prevent the proposal from going into effect. And civil rights advocates, including the ACLU of Oregon, pushed back hard against the proposal, saying that Oregon would disproportionately harm people of color.

Opponents in the Senate echoed that concern, saying the bill would change the system without adequate treatment programs in place.

“I remain concerned that it is taking us down a potentially dangerous path if it doesn’t work out in the way that it’s hoped for,” said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland.

The penalties for drug possession would take effect in September. But Dembrow and Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, warned that the existing shortage of public defenders will only grow worse with the increased caseloads.

“In its current form, there are just too many question marks,” Dembrow said.

Three Republican and five Democratic senators voted against the measure.

Under the bill, counties would have the option, but not a mandate, to set up new, state-funded deflection programs that offer people a chance to avoid charges after an initial encounter with a police officer.

So far, 23 of Oregon’s 36 counties have signaled their intent to set up the new programs. Defendants in all Oregon’s counties would have additional opportunities to enter treatment programs and have their records erased.

The bill would provide about $30.5 million for counties and community mental health programs, which contract with counties to provide services to people in addiction. In all, the proposal would put an estimated $211 million that lawmakers want to put toward addiction-related services, treatment and programs.

That total has more funding for court programs, community mental health clinics, treatment programs, new residential treatment facilities and other services like addiction medication in jails.

The Senate passed the $211 million funding through a separate bill, House Bill 5204, with a 27-3 vote on Thursday. That bill, which has already passed the House, also goes to Kotek’s desk.

The package includes about $85 million in “shovel-ready” projects across the state, from rural Oregon to Portland.

This story was first published by Oregon Capital Chronicle.

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