Implementation Issues and Rising Overdose Rates Fueling Criticism
In 2020, nearly 60% of Oregon voters passed a groundbreaking ballot measure that decriminalized personal use amounts of all drugs and redirected marijuana tax revenue to fund addiction services grants. However, the rollout of this law has been marred by bureaucratic mistakes and a short timeline, coinciding with a nationwide fentanyl crisis. The escalating drug overdose rates across the country, with over 100,000 deaths in 2022 alone, have heightened concerns about the effects of the law.
Polls Show Growing Opposition
Recent polls consistently indicate a growing opposition to the decriminalization law in Oregon. The Coalition to Fix and Improve Ballot Measure 110, supported by influential figures like Nike co-founder Phil Knight and Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle, has commissioned three surveys this year. The latest survey revealed that 74% of respondents favored recriminalizing the possession of fentanyl, heroin, and meth, making treatment mandatory instead of voluntary as an alternative to jail. A staggering 86% of respondents also believe that Oregon should immediately ban the use of drugs in public.
Coalition Proposes Changes
To address these concerns, the Coalition to Fix and Improve Ballot Measure 110 has put forth a voter initiative aimed at amending the existing law. While the proposal maintains the prioritization of diversion, treatment, and recovery over prosecution and jail, it seeks to recriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs and completely ban public drug use. Additionally, the initiative aims to improve oversight of how tax dollars are allocated and increase penalties for drug dealing.
Challenges and Criticism
One of the main criticisms of the current decriminalization law is its lenient punishment of a $100 fine for possession, which can be waived upon completion of a substance use assessment. However, less than 1% of those ticketed have completed the assessment, bringing into question the effectiveness of this approach. Supporters argue that this figure does not capture the thousands of people who have received substance use treatment or utilized peer support services and harm reduction supplies.
While critics argue that the return to criminalization will be “harmful and ineffective” by stigmatizing individuals who need help, proponents of the proposed changes believe that the current law has exacerbated issues related to overdose rates, crime, and livability in Oregon. They point to the fact that Oregon is the only state to have decriminalized drugs and highlight the swift reinstatement of criminal sanctions in neighboring Washington.
The Path Forward
The Oregon legislature recently heard testimony on Measure 110 ahead of its upcoming short session in February. Some lawmakers, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, have urged criminalization of public drug use, while downtown business owners have blamed the law for turning the city into a “virtual drug supermarket.” If the legislature does not take action, the Coalition to Fix and Improve Ballot Measure 110 is prepared to run its proposal as a ballot measure, emphasizing the urgency to address the crisis at hand.