Oregon’s move to decriminalize hard drugs failed

SALEM, Ore. (AP) – Two years after Oregon residents voted to decriminalize hard drugs and commit hundreds of millions of dollars to treatment, few people have sought the services and the state has been slow to provide the funds .

When voters passed the state’s groundbreaking Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act in 2020, the emphasis was on treatment as well as decriminalizing personal-use possession of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs.

But Oregon still has among the highest addiction rates in the country. Fatal overdoses have increased by almost 20% over the previous year, with over a thousand deaths. More than half of the addiction treatment programs in the state lack the capacity to meet demand because they are understaffed and underfunded, according to testimony before lawmakers.

Supporters want more states to follow Oregon’s lead, saying decriminalization reduces the stigma of addiction and keeps people who use drugs from going to prison and being saddled with criminal records. How Oregon is doing will certainly be taken into account if another state considers decriminalization.

Steve Allen, director of behavioral health for the Oregon Health Authority, acknowledged the rocky start, even as he announced a “milestone” has been reached, with more than $302 million being sent to facilities to help people quit drugs, or at least use it. them safer.

“The road to get here was not easy. Oregon is the first state to try such a bold and transformative approach,” Allen told a state Senate committee Wednesday.

One expert, however, told the legislators that the effort is doomed if people with addictions are not nudged into treatment.

“If there is no formal or informal pressure on addicts to seek treatment and recovery and therefore stop using drugs, we should expect continued high rates of drug use, addiction and associated harm,” said Keith Humphreys , an addiction researcher and professor at Stanford. University and former senior advisor in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Of 16,000 people who accessed services in the first year of decriminalization, only 0.85% entered treatment, the health authority said. A total of 60% received “harm reduction” such as syringe exchange and overdose medication. A further 15% received assistance with housing needs and 12% received peer support.

The Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, also known as Measure 110, is a campaign issue this year as Republicans try to wrest the governorship from Democrats, who have held it since 1987.

“I voted no on Measure 110 because decriminalizing hard drugs like heroin and meth is a terrible idea,” said GOP candidate Christine Drazan, who supports asking voters to repeal it. “As expected, it made our addiction crisis worse, not better.”

Unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson, a veteran former lawmaker, said she would work to repeal what she called a “failed experiment.”

A spokeswoman for Democratic candidate Tina Kotek, a former House speaker, said Drazan and Johnson “are trying to go against the will of the voters. … Oregonians don’t want to go backwards.”

“As governor, Tina will make sure the state is delivering what the voters demanded: expanded recovery services across the state,” said spokeswoman Katie Wertheimer.

Under the law, people receive a citation, and the maximum $100 fine is waived if they call a hotline for a health assessment. But most of the 3,100 tickets issued so far have gone ignored, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. Few people have dialed the hotline.

Tera Hurst, executive director of the Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance, which is focused on implementing Measure 110, said coerced treatment is ineffective. Hurst said it’s important to focus on “just building a system of care to make sure people who need access have access.”

Allen called the multimillion-dollar payout — which comes from taxes on the legalized marijuana industry — a “pivotal moment.”

“Measure 110 is being launched and will provide critical supports and services to individuals, families and communities,” he told the Senate committee.

However, it will take time to use the funds to develop the services.

Centro Latino Americano, a nonprofit that serves Latino immigrant families, plans to use its $4.5 million share to move treatment services into a larger space and hire more staff, manager Basilio Sandoval said.

“Measure 110 allows this service to be provided free of charge,” Sandoval said.

Scott Winkels, lobbyist for the Oregon League of Cities, said residents are running out of patience.

“People need to see progress,” Winkels said.

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