Oregon sees pressure to change drug decriminalization

Oct 19, 2023

In recent months, Oregon state’s drug decriminalization legislation has been facing significant pressure as Portland and other cities prepare to lobby the government to reform or repeal it.

In 2020, Oregon became the first U.S. state to decriminalize possession of illicit drugs as voters approved Measure 110 to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, as well as to create a drug-treatment program funded by tax revenue from cannabis sales. Under the new decriminalization law, individuals possessing less than one gram of heroin or less than two grams of meth are issued the equivalent of a traffic ticket, with a $100 fine that can be waived by calling a treatment referral number and agreement to participate in a health assessment.

However, despite the decriminalization measure, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths in Oregon has continued to grow. According to the data released by the city of Oregon, in 2019, there were 280 opioid-related overdose deaths in the state, compared to 745 deaths in 2021. In addition, a study carried out by The Economist found that during the past two years of the decriminalization measure implementation, of the 4,000 drug use citations issued in Oregon during the first two years of Measure 110, only 40 individuals called the hotline and were interested in treatment. “[Measure 110] has cost taxpayers $7,000 a call,” stated The Economist. In addition, the number of individuals living on the street in Multnomah County increased by 29% from January 2022 to January 2023, as shown by the annual count.

Consequently, earlier in September, Portland City Council unanimously voted to enact a ban on the use of illicit drugs such as fentanyl, heroin, and methamphetamines in public spaces in order to improve Portland’s livability.

Specifically, the council voted 5-0 to add criminal penalties to public drug use, including up to 6 months of prison time or a $500 fine.

“These are necessary, common-sense steps to disrupt debilitating drug use on the streets of Portland that does deep damage to our city’s livability, overwhelms our emergency response system and destroys lives,” Commissioner Rene Gonzalez said in a released statement.

However, in order for the emergency ordinance to become effective, Oregon state lawmakers are required to pass a new law that would allow cities and other municipalities to regulate public drug consumption.

Oregon policymakers are scheduled to meet at the end of September to discuss new bills to introduce in the 2024 session, including potential changes to Measure 110.

“The bottom line is this: Week by week the situation is getting worse,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler during the council meeting. “We have to focus with urgency to save lives and livelihoods.”