Oregon’s Soft Approach to Possession of Schedule One Drugs is Catastrophic, Data Says
Oregon’s decision in 2021 to decriminalize possession of small amounts of Schedule One drugs has had “catastrophic consequences”, says the Mayor of Brewer, Jenn Morin. She has added her voice to a growing list of antagonists to repeal a law approved in 1975.
Mayor Morin says since Oregon decided to legalize small amounts of heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl, the state has experienced an increase in homelessness, overdoses, crime, and public unrest.
Oregon’s Lenient Approach to Drugs is Backfiring
Oregon’s progressive stance on drug possession is suffering a backlash of criticism after a sharp increase in fatalities from overdosing and the spread of fentanyl.
Since decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs in Oregon, death by drug overdose has increased sharply. In cities like Portland authorities are also dealing with an increase in outdoor drug use amid growing criticism from business owners and residents.
Opioid fatalities in Oregon increased from 280 to a staggering 956 between 2019 and 2022. However, the number of deaths from drug overdoses has generally risen throughout the country, a factor attributed to an increase in the spread and use of fentanyl, a synthetic analgesic like morphine that is up to 100 times more potent.
Public Displays of Drug Use and Abuse
People are unable to live their daily lives without encountering public displays of drug use and abuse, according to the vice president of DHM Research, John Horvick. He says Oregon residents are fast changing their minds about their initial approval of a softer approach to the problem. Known as Measure 110, 58% of the state voted in favor of decriminalization of possession of small amounts of drugs and increased provision of drug rehabilitation and recovery resources.
In Oregon, possession of heroin under one gram is subject to a maximum fine of $100. Offenders can call a 24-hour hotline to have their citations dismissed on condition they undergo addiction screening within 45 days. The law took effect at the beginning of February 2021 and, during that first year, only 1% of offenders contacted the hotline for help. No penalties for failing to pay fines were imposed, according to state auditors.
Governor Asked to Intervene
Oregon Governor, Tina Kotek, has been asked by Republicans to arrange a special session to address the issue before the Legislature meets next month. They point out that drug treatment should be a requirement and not an option.
Their request is endorsed by law enforcement officials who want drug possession to revert to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a one-year jail term or a $6,250 fine.
Critics point out that the current soft approach to possession has failed to create an incentive for addicts to seek treatment. They say that states which adopted a more lenient approach are now facing a bigger drug crisis.
Endorsing a harsher approach is Jason Edmiston, the chief of police at rural Hermiston in northeast Oregon. While he does not believe that incarceration is the solution, Edmiston supports a return to a Class A misdemeanor for possession.
The growing number of antagonists opposing the soft approach is even attracting support from Democrats who initially backed the bill. They have indicated their approval of a re-evaluation of the situation, following the increase in synthetic opioid deaths in several states.
A new joint legislative committee has been appointed to tackle the drug problem. Co-chaired by Democrat Sen. Kate Lieber, she says something has to be done to make the streets a safer place and to save lives.
Research Discounts Increased Drug Death Claims
Researchers, on the other hand, say there is no correlation between an increase in drug-related deaths and a more lenient approach to possession. Oregon’s monthly overdose fatality rate is only 0.27 points per 100,000 people above comparable states. The state would have to experience 0.5 overdose fatalities per 100,000 for the increase to become statistically significant.
Published findings of the Pew Charitable Trust state that harsher sentences and increased rates of drug jail sentences will not translate into decreased drug use, arrests, or overdoses, both at the state and federal levels.
Sruha Joshi co-authored two research papers into the death and arrest rates since decriminalization and says drug overdoses were not related to policy changes. This view was also endorsed by Magdalena Cerda, director of the Center of Opioids/Epidemiology and Policy at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. She said researchers could find no major change in the number of overdoses in Oregon. These findings included the impact of fentanyl on the open drug market.