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Landmark Drug Possession Reform Based on Unproven Allegations Reversed in Oregon

by Jo Ellen Knott

 

Oregon legislators passed H.B. 4002 on March 1, 2024, with support from both Democrats and Republicans on a 21-8 vote. Gov. Tina Kotek’s office indicated on March 7 that she would sign it sometime in the upcoming 30 days. H.B. 4002 undoes important drug possession reform brought about by Measure 110 in 2020.

            Measure 110 reclassified drug possession as a Class E violation with a $100 fine, coupled with voluntary health assessments and access to treatment. Oregonians who supported Measure 110 argued against coercive treatment (entering treatment to avoid incarceration) saying it was ineffective and ethically questionable. They supported treating drug abuse as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

            Public dissatisfaction with Measure 110 grew during its three years of existence because of ongoing opioid-related deaths and public nuisances such as “discarded needles, human feces, and oral sex," according to The New York Times, that are associated with drug use. Despite its intentions, Measure 110 did not address the root issues of black-market drug quality and potency, made worse by prohibition.

Critics argued that decriminalization alone would not curb overdose deaths, especially with the influx of potent drugs like fentanyl. While some studies suggested an increase in overdose deaths following decriminalization, others found no direct correlation. Reason underscored the fact that “the numbers from Oregon are instead consistent with a fentanyl-fueled rise in fatal overdoses that has played out in different parts of the country at different times.”

Opponents of Measure 110 claimed it encouraged drug use, but data showed minimal new drug users post-decriminalization. RTI International, an independent, nonprofit research institute dedicated to improving the human condition, studied 468 drug users in eight Oregon counties and discovered that just 1.5 percent of them had begun using drugssince Measure 110 took effect. The fact that the focus needed to shift to systemic issues like underfunded addiction services and healthcare delivery rather than blaming the policy itself is lost on many supporters of H.B. 4002.

            Senator Michael Dembrow, (D-Portland), voted against H.B. 4002 and said Oregon made a mistake when it implemented Measure 110 by not providing addiction treatment programs quickly enough: “The fundamental flaw with Ballot Measure 110 was that it decriminalized first and only slowly funded, designed and implemented the needed treatment programs.”

            Under H.B. 4002, drug possession is once again a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, with the option to avoid incarceration by enrolling in a treatment program. The passing of H.B. 4002 reflects a return to punishing addiction and drug use rather than addressing underlying societal problems. Critics argue that Oregon lawmakers did not give decriminalization and harm reduction a fair chance to work, choosing to fall back instead on outdated tactics that have failed in the past.

            The non-profit Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) works to “end the war on drugs, repair its harms, and build a non-punitive, equitable, and regulated drug market.” DPA called the passage of H.B. 4002 “an intense disinformation campaign by drug war defenders and by Oregon leaders who scapegoated Measure 110 for every issue in the state.” The group also claims that H.B. 4002 “sacrifices Black and Indigenous/Native lives to bow down to a predominately corporate interest group led by the former chief of Oregon’s prisons.”

            Ultimately, the debate revolves around whether drug use, a victimless act, warrants criminalization. Measure 110 challenged the notion that drug possession should be treated as a crime, yet its opponents have yet to provide a compelling moral argument for returning to punitive measures.

Sources: Drug Policy Alliance, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Reason

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