Politics

Law enforcement officials press lawmakers to tighten Oregon’s drug laws

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Nov. 7, 2023 12:29 a.m. Updated: Nov. 7, 2023 1:04 a.m.

Police and sheriff’s departments around Oregon say they want authority to arrest people who use and possess drugs as a way to steer them to treatment.

FILE: A syringe is seen in a tent near the intersection of Southwest 12th Avenue and Southwest Columbia Street in downtown Portland, June 25, 2021.

FILE: A syringe is seen in a tent near the intersection of Southwest 12th Avenue and Southwest Columbia Street in downtown Portland, June 25, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Representatives for Oregon police and sheriff’s departments told lawmakers Monday they lack tools under the current legal landscape to address the most visible pieces of the state’s ongoing drug crisis.

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But those representatives didn’t seem to agree on exactly what lawmakers should do, as a legislative committee hurries to develop proposals to disrupt dealing, tamp down public drug use and help steer users toward treatment.

Some, like Lincoln County Sheriff Curtis Landers, have joined colleagues to call on the Legislature to recriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs.

“We want to see people get help,” Landers told lawmakers on a new Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response. “But making it a crime probably forces it a little bit.”

Sgt. Aaron Schmautz, president of Portland’s rank-and-file police union, was more circumspect. Re-introducing criminal penalties for small-time possession would give police more leeway to search people, confiscate drugs and at least disrupt situations that officers currently have little recourse to stop, Schmautz said.

“The cry that I hear in downtown Portland over and over and over again is, ‘Here’s this person who is using fentanyl in front of my child’ [or] ‘I’m at a park and this person is clearly struggling,’” Schmautz said. “What can we do? We have to have the ability to abate that.”

But reverting to the days when drug possession was at minimum a misdemeanor could have problematic ripple effects, he noted. Courts are understaffed, and the state’s threadbare public defense system is unable to handle existing cases. Flooding the system with thousands of new drug cases, he noted, isn’t likely to help.

“If you want to give police back [the ability to arrest people for possession],’ Schmautz said, “I think it’s really, really important to recognize the significant cultural shift that will happen there.”

The comments reflect the delicate balancing act that lawmakers have in front of them as February’s legislative session approaches.

With 2020′s Ballot Measure 110, Oregon voters signaled they wanted to treat addiction as a public health problem, not a criminal one. But many of those same voters have soured on the policy as overdoses, open drug use and homelessness have soared – in Oregon and other parts of the country.

Democrats who earlier this year were adamant that Measure 110 must be given the chance to work as intended – complete with a robust slate of statewide treatment services that are getting underway – are now promising more muscular intervention. The question is what it looks like.

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In the second hearing of the new addiction-focused task force, law enforcement representatives pressed for more power to steer people toward treatment by using the possibility of criminal penalties, which most said they didn’t want to actually use.

“We don’t believe a return to incarceration is the answer,” said Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston, “but restoring a [class] A misdemeanor for possession with diversion opportunities is critically important.”

Under Measure 110, police can issue tickets to people caught with illicit drugs. But those citations have no teeth, and can be ignored with impunity. A state-sponsored hotline that was created to encourage drug users to connect with treatment services has by all accounts been a flop.

A coalition of lawmakers, criminal justice figures and other officials recently traveled to Portugal to study its decades-old decriminalization policy and understand other ways to steer drug users to treatment. Some of the people on the trip had their travel and lodging paid for by backers of Measure 110, who also organized the excursion.

Two of the law enforcement officers who spoke Monday made that trip: Schmautz and Salem Police Detective Scotty Nowning. So did three members of the committee they were talking to: Sens. Kate Lieber, D-Portland, and Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, along with Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland.

It was unclear Monday what ideas or policy changes the Portugal trip might inspire. Schmautz and Nowning both spoke of the possibility of officers partnering with treatment workers on street patrols, to help direct users toward treatment options.

But some form of stepped-up criminal penalties appears all but certain to emerge from the committee. High-ranking Democrats have talked up the possibility of creating a new crime for public drug use – a high priority for Portland city officials – and for tweaking the crime of delivering a controlled substance to make it easier to convict drug dealers.

Ahead of Monday’s hearing, an array of law-enforcement groups and city officials unveiled a list of proposals that included creating three new criminal penalties: one for possession, one for public use and another for public use in an enclosed space. The coalition pushing those changes said it would favor giving people charged with those crimes repeated chances to avoid criminal penalties if they seek treatment.

How far lawmakers might go is unclear. Some members of the committee appeared open on Monday to some type of criminal consequence for possession. Prozanski, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked witnesses whether it would be feasible to make low-level possession a class B or C misdemeanor, less serious than the class A designation they have asked for.

“What I’m hearing is that law enforcement needs the interventions they used to have,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be class A.”

Landers, the Lincoln County sheriff, disagreed, saying only a more serious misdemeanor charge would give law enforcement enough leverage to convince a person to seek treatment.

Lieber, a former prosecutor who just returned from Portugal, said she was conflicted.

“It’s the idea of criminalizing addiction,” she said. “I’m struggling with the idea of using the criminal justice system to [steer people to treatment].”

Lawmakers also heard from Oregon State Police Superintendent Casey Codding, who walked them through data that suggests overdose deaths have exploded in the state. According to the state medical examiner, 1,468 “drug toxicity-related” deaths were reported last year, a 35% increase from 2021.

Codding said police are seizing more fentanyl than ever – more than 170 pounds so far this year. That includes two pounds seized in downtown Portland, where state troopers have begun sporadically assisting city police on drug patrols. Since the partnership began in October, troopers have gone out on six operations, Codding said.

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