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Oregon re-criminalizes hard drugs after overdose deaths skyrocket

By Mandy Donalds
March 3, 2024

Oregon's legislature has decided to reimpose penalties on the possession of certain narcotics, marking a significant departure from a previously heralded progressive approach to drug decriminalization.

This move comes in the wake of a dramatic increase in overdose fatalities, which prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency in Portland due to the rampant fentanyl problem.

The decision illustrates a growing concern over the adverse effects of lenient drug laws on public health and safety.

The Genesis and Reversal of a Progressive Measure

In an unprecedented move in 2020, Oregon passed Ballot Measure 110, which sought to decriminalize minor possession of all drugs while allocating a substantial portion of the state's marijuana tax revenue to fund addiction recovery services.

This policy, supported by 58% of Oregon voters, aimed to address drug addiction through treatment rather than incarceration.

However, the state has since witnessed a troubling rise in addiction and overdose deaths, not just from local drug use but also as a part of a national crisis exacerbated by the proliferation of fentanyl.

A survey in August revealed that 56% of Oregonians disapproved of the measure, leading to a bipartisan effort to revoke the policy.

Legislative Action and Responses

Following robust support in both chambers, the Oregon Senate passed the bill to recriminalize the possession of small quantities of drugs with a 21-8 vote, closely following the House's approval at 51-7.

The legislation, which now awaits Gov. Tina Kotek's signature, proposes treating the possession of drugs like heroin or methamphetamine as misdemeanors, subject to up to six months in jail.

It aims to empower police to address drug use in public spaces more effectively while offering drug treatment as an alternative to jail time.

"With this bill, we are doubling down on our commitment to make sure Oregonians have access to the treatment and care that they need," stated Democratic Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, highlighting the bill's potential to catalyze significant change within the justice system.

The bill also intends to facilitate the prosecution of drug dealers and improve access to addiction treatment and housing for those in recovery.

Concerns and Community Impact

Despite the bill's intended benefits, some voices, like Democratic Sen. Lew Frederick, express apprehension that it might revive ineffective punitive approaches.

Frederick voiced concerns over the bill's potential to funnel more individuals into the criminal justice system without effectively promoting health.

On the ground, individuals like Portland security guard Michael Bock have observed a distressing surge in fentanyl-related issues, reporting a 533% increase in overdoses in Multnomah County from 2018 to 2022.

Bock's observations paint a grim picture of drug dealers operating with impunity, significantly impacting local communities.

He said, "They're doing it in schools, they're doing it parking lots, they're doing it in playgrounds, they're doing it at churches, in front of businesses. They're doing it in broad daylight, and nothing is stopping it."