Oregon’s pioneering drug decriminalization hasn’t led many to seek help, as backers said it would
The effort ‘was presented to the public as pro-treatment, but it has been a complete failure in that regard,’ says Keith Humphreys, a Stanford addiction researcher and former White House drug policy adviser.
SALEM, Ore. — When Oregon voters approved a ballot measure in 2020 to decriminalize hard drugs, they were told the first-in-the-nation effort would also be a way to establish and fund addiction recovery centers to offer those who are addicted help rather than incarceration.
But in the first year since the pioneering effort to decriminalize drugs took effect in February 2021, only 1% of those who were ticketed — rather than arrested — for possessing controlled substances asked for help via the state’s new hotline.
With Oregon being the first state to decriminalize possession of personal-use amounts of heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, oxycodone and other drugs, its program is being watched as a potential model for other states.
Some have criticized the approach as too lenient. Others say the new system has had a positive impact by redirecting millions of dollars to facilities to help people with drug dependency issues. The money comes from taxes on Oregon’s legal marijuana industry and savings from lower costs for jail and probation supervision resulting from not arresting people for possession of small amounts of drugs.
Possession of controlled substances is now a newly created Class E “violation” instead of a felony or misdemeanor. It carries a maximum $100 fine, which can be waived if the person calls a hotline for a health assessment. The call can lead to addiction counseling and other services.
But of roughly 2,000 citations issued by police in the year after decriminalization took effect, only 92 of the people who received them called the hotline by mid-February. And only 19 requested resources for services, said William Nunemann of Lines for Life, which runs the hotline.
Nearly half of those who got citations failed to show up in court.
Oregon state health officials have reported 473 unintentional opioid overdose deaths from January to August 2021, the most recent figures available. The vast majority occurred after decriminalization took effect.
That narrowly surpasses the total for all of 2020 and is nearly 200 deaths more than the state saw in all of 2019.
Opioid overdose visits to emergency rooms and urgent care centers also have been on the rise.
The Oregon Health Authority says the greater presence of fentanyl is likely the reason. Fentanyl — an opioid far more dangerous than heroin, which is often used to cut heroin and lower dealers’ costs — has prompted an increase in overdose deaths across the country.
State Sen. Floyd Prozanski, who chairs the Oregon Senate’s Judiciary and Ballot Measure 110 Implementation Committee, said he’s surprised more of those ticketed weren’t taking advantage of the recovery options. But Prozanki said it’s too soon to judge how the new approach is going and that he wants to wait at least another six months before considering whether steps should be introduced to compel people to seek treatment.
“It’s a different model, at least for the U.S.,” Prozanski said.
Decriminalization advocates argued that putting drug users in jail and giving them criminal records, which harms job and housing prospects, wasn’t working.
“Punishing people and these punitive actions, all it does is saddle them with barriers and more stigma and more shame,” said Tera Hurst, executive director of Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance, which represents more than 75 organizations.
The Drug Policy Alliance spearheaded Oregon’s ballot measure. With no other states to serve as examples, the New York group, which calls itself the leading organization in the United States promoting alternatives to the war on drugs, studied Portugal, which decriminalized drug possession in 2000. Portugal’s approach is more vigorous than Oregon’s in getting people to treatment.
In Oregon, about 16,000 people tapped services through the ballot measure’s “Access to Care” grants in the first year of decriminalization, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
Most — 60% — used “harm reduction services,” like syringe exchanges and overdose medications. Another 15% were assisted with housing needs, and 12% obtained peer support. Only 0.85% entered treatment.
Critics say that’s not enough.
“The Oregon ballot initiative was presented to the public as pro-treatment, but it has been a complete failure in that regard,” said Keith Humphreys, an addiction researcher and Stanford University psychiatry professor who is a former senior adviser in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Brian Pacheco of the Drug Policy Alliance said people with drug problems need options, including harm reduction services, housing assistance, peer support and, for those who can’t get insurance or Medicaid, access to treatment centers.
The $31 million in grants distributed so far paid for thousands of doses of naloxone, thousands of syringe exchanges, recovery housing, vehicles and hiring dozens of people to work at care centers, including recovery mentors, according to the health authority.