Oregon’s Drug Decriminalization: Some Recovery Advocates Seek Changes, Not Repeal

Oregon recovery advocates want state leaders to take decisive action to combat a growing drug and alcohol addiction crisis that is killing Oregonians every day.  

Oregon Recovers, a Portland-based advocacy group, on Wednesday released a 12-step proposal to end the state’s addiction crisis through a variety of actions, such as expanding treatment, growing the workforce and taking preventive measures like public education campaigns and increased distribution of naloxone kits that reverse opioid overdoses.  

The proposal coincides with growing calls among critics for the repeal of Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of small quantities of illegal drugs and has led to rampant drug use on the streets. It essentially marks the group’s response to that, serving as a proposed blueprint for ending the addiction crisis, which kills more than 2,000 Oregonians a year from alcohol abuse and hundreds more from fentanyl and other drugs, according to state data.  

“It’s really to create a roadmap around which policymakers at every level of government can focus on specific outcomes and concrete programs that will actually have an impact as opposed to simply moving money around,” Mike Marshall, executive director of Oregon Recovers, said in a press conference. 

To become a reality, the proposal would need buy-in from the governor and other state leaders. Elisabeth Shepherd, a spokesperson for Kotek’s office, on Wednesday didn’t comment on the proposal but said the governor wants to hear from people affected by the crisis and her advisors will review the group’s recommendations. 

The group wants Oregon to meet three core goals: 

  • Reduce fatal drug overdoses by 50% within a year. 
  • Reduce alcohol-related deaths by 50% within a year.  
  • Eliminate wait lists for detox, residential treatment and recovery housing within six months. 

In short, drastic action would be necessary. Under the proposal, Oregon would set up temporary field hospitals to provide medical care for people going through drug withdrawal – also called detox centers – and stabilize others who have brain injuries from overdoses. 

Marshall said people struggle to access detox centers and are turned away due to a lack of services. Oregon needs to create “immediate access” as it builds out its system. 

In Oregon, people often travel outside their communities to access those services. 

In a separate interview, Stephanie Cameron, executive director of the Eugene-based Restored Connections Peer Center, said her organization helps people find and access detox services in Lane County or elsewhere. They sometimes need to travel to Medford or Portland to get a bed. 

The shortage of services means people continue to use deadly drugs to avoid withdrawal symptoms while waiting for care. 

“The waitlists for detox are too long and unfortunately, especially right now with fentanyl, people are still using to stay well while they’re waiting for detox beds,” Cameron said. “And what’s happening is people are dying because there’s not enough infrastructure around medically-assisted detox services for people to safely discontinue the use of such a strong opioid like fentanyl.” 

Measure 110 changes proposed   

The proposal would change Measure 110, but not eliminate it. The group wants police officers to confiscate illegal drugs, including the small amounts decriminalized under the law which was passed by voters in 2020. Confiscation would not mean the person would be arrested.  

Civil violations for drug possession would be tracked, and five violations within a year would lead to a single misdemeanor charge, under the group’s proposal.  

“Measure 110 never said you shouldn’t confiscate the drugs,” Marshall said. “They just said you can’t criminalize people who own them. Those drugs are still illegal.” 

Marshall said the confiscation would take drugs off the streets and raise the price of street drugs over time, discouraging use. 

Other steps in proposal  

The proposal also calls for the state to: Other steps in the blueprint include: 

  • Require state officials to develop a plan to reduce excessive alcohol and drug consumption by 25% by January 2025. 
  • Fund 250 residential treatment beds for young people, 500 detox beds, 6,500 beds for other types of residential and recovery programs: more than 7,000 total. 
  • Temporarily restrict alcohol and cannabis advertising until the state addiction rate drops from 18.2% to 10%. 
  • Adequately reimburse treatment providers with higher rates and ensure private insurers and Medicaid insurers cover medications. 
  • Raise the tax on alcohol and tax alcohol and cannabis at comparable rates. 

By Ben Botkin of Oregon Capital Chronicle  

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