Oregon cities join police, prosecutors in push to recriminalize drug possession

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Nov. 3, 2023 12:25 a.m. Updated: Nov. 3, 2023 1:55 a.m.

Three years after Oregon voters decriminalized small amounts of hard drugs, cities across the state say they’ve had enough.

The League of Oregon Cities has joined with police and prosecutors in calling on state lawmakers to recriminalize drug possession when they convene in Salem starting in February.

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The organization, a lobbying group that represents cities around Oregon, signed onto a letter sent to lawmakers Thursday demanding a range of changes to state law next year. The group’s inclusion adds heft to a growing chorus of calls for a rollback of 2020′s Ballot Measure 110, the state’s pioneering drug decriminalization measure.

Since the measure passed, a nationwide fentanyl epidemic has spurred a surge in overdoses and deaths. Oregon severely lacks treatment options. The state is also in the midst of a mental health crisis and severe housing shortage.

Since Measure 110 passed, polls suggest that voters’ sympathetic or more lenient attitudes toward drugs have soured, and the surge in overdoses has brought new calls for enforcement. District attorneys, sheriffs, police and now cities are attempting to harness that frustration.

A man, 23, sits on the sidewalk in downtown Portland, preparing what he says is heroin, June 25, 2021. Measure 110, a drug treatment and recovery act, was aimed at connecting drug users to treatment and recovery services, including housing assistance instead of serving time in jail for possessing small amounts of drugs.

A man, 23, sits on the sidewalk in downtown Portland, preparing what he says is heroin, June 25, 2021. Measure 110, a drug treatment and recovery act, was aimed at connecting drug users to treatment and recovery services, including housing assistance instead of serving time in jail for possessing small amounts of drugs.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

“As your partners in public safety, we believe that Ballot Measure 110 failed to recognize that drug addiction is both a public health and public safety crisis and requires solutions on both sides of the ledger,” reads a letter sent to lawmakers this week by the League of Oregon Cities, the Oregon State Sheriffs Association, the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police and the Oregon District Attorneys Association.

The coalition lists 11 proposals “designed to address Oregon’s severe addiction crisis, the alarming rise in fentanyl overdose-related deaths,” which are having “detrimental effects” on “community safety and quality of life across our state.”

The document calls for once again criminalizing drug possession and restoring possession of a controlled substance as a Class-A misdemeanor. Under Ballot Measure 110, personal possession of hard drugs is not criminal. Rather, police are supposed to give out citations that help connect users to treatment.

The proposals backed by cities and law enforcement say that someone charged with possession under their plan should be eligible to have the charge dismissed after completing the required treatment. The misdemeanor charge “with diversion will compel those struggling with addiction to enter treatment without turning to an approach that focuses on incarceration,” the letter to lawmakers states. The letter also calls for the creation of new misdemeanor charges, outlawing the use of hard drugs in public and in enclosed public spaces where it could harm another person, such as public transportation. Repeat offenders could face a low-level felony charge, under the proposal.

The coalition also wants Oregon lawmakers to make it easier to go after drug dealers. Last month, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld a 2021 lower-court ruling that changed how state law defined “delivering a controlled substance.” The lower court’s ruling upended decades of legal precedent and made it harder for prosecutors and police to go after dealers. Under earlier policies, law enforcement could win convictions for delivery if a person was merely caught with an incriminating amount of drugs; prosecutors now have to present evidence that a person actually attempted to complete a sale.

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Lawmakers and Gov. Tina Kotek have already suggested they will prioritize a legal fix.

Oregon cities and law enforcement also say they want to push more options for treatment.

The proposal sent to lawmakers calls on expanding detox and sobering centers, noting they’re often the first step in treatment. Oregon’s lack of capacity makes it harder for those who want to start treatment for substance use disorder.

Another idea would give first responders the ability to place someone severely intoxicated under a wellness hold that could last up to 72 hours, forcing them to stay at a facility where they can get supervised medical care.

“After 72 hours, the person is given the option to either leave on their own or stay and receive additional services,” the coalition’s proposal states. Other Western states “that have implemented these policies have seen a high level of engagement with aftercare and wrap-around services.”

Sam Chase, director of Portland’s Office of Government Relations, said the city supports the proposals, including those aimed at recriminalizing drug possession. He said the intent is not solely to criminalize drug possession. At the same time, Chase said there needs to be accountability in the system.

“All these strategies need to work hand in hand,” Chase said. “But we have to have those tools for our public safety officials to be able to address Portland’s crisis.”

In September, a group of prominent business leaders and public officials filed their own voter initiatives that would make similar changes to what cities, prosecutors and law enforcement leaders are now asking of lawmakers. Backers of those measures say it would not repeal Measure 110 but would make possessing hard drugs illegal, once again.

The proposals come as a group of elected officials — including several state lawmakers — and criminal justice figures are traveling to Portugal to learn about the country’s experiences since decriminalizing drugs in 2001. That trip was organized by the Health Justice Resource Alliance, a major backer of Measure 110 that paid for some officials to attend. Lawmakers on the trip include state Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Portland, who is playing a lead role in crafting the state’s response to its addiction crisis during next year’s legislative session.

Some supporters of Measure 110 point out that the law has diverted thousands of people away from the criminal justice system. Restoring low-level criminal drug charges could add cases to an already overburdened system, they argue. For the last two years, Oregon has failed to provide enough public defenders for everyone prosecutors have charged with crimes.

“When you put those people back into the system that doesn’t have adequate resources — and this isn’t amongst public defenders — for prosecutors, judges, jails and prisons — what is going to be the result?” asked Sandy Chung, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon.

“We’re seeing a lot of signs that the current legal system simply is not resourced and does not have the ability to meet the needs of all the different societal issues that come up. When you try to address everything through the criminal legal system simply because it’s a system that exists doesn’t mean it’s suited for it.”

OPB’s Dirk VanderHart contributed reporting.

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