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Oregon's drug decriminalization law faces test amid fentanyl crisis

Oregon drug decriminalization facing backlash
Oregon drug decriminalization facing backlash, despite positive effects for some 04:42

The streets of Portland, Oregon, are littered with foil, syringes, and used Narcan canisters, reflecting a stark reality where open fentanyl use is a common sight.

After grappling with soaring fentanyl overdose rates, Oregon pioneered a 2020 law called Measure 110 that partly decriminalized the possession of certain drugs. Oregon's Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act aimed to prioritize treatment over criminalization. 

However, this approach has been met with criticism from members of law enforcement who argue that the lack of serious legal consequences doesn't incentivize treatment for addicts — especially given fentanyl's highly addictive nature.

"My full-time job is fentanyl and basically all roads lead to fentanyl in downtown Portland," said Portland Police Officer David Baer.

While on patrol recently, Baer, who leads Portland Police's bike squad, issued a $100 citation to 23-year-old Milo McPherson for publicly smoking fentanyl instead of arresting McPherson. That offers McPherson a chance for treatment and a fine waiver if he contacts specific drug rehabilitation services. But calling the hotline is voluntary, frustrating Portland law enforcement. 

Since the measure's implementation, over 6,000 citations have been issued, with a 64% non-compliance rate, according to the Oregon Judicial Department. But the lack of adherence to the measure has prompted calls for a return to criminalizing drug use while integrating diversion programs within the judicial system from a coalition of police chiefs, donors and district attorneys, including Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton.

"The vast majority of people that get that ticket throw them away," said Barton. "There is no silver bullet. We need to create rewards and consequences to engage in treatments."

Advocates for the measure said 15,000 people across over 200 locations in the state have been treated and arrests and jailings for drug use or possession have dropped by 68%, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

Christina Anderson, a program director at Volunteers of America Oregon, said that addiction is a medical and not a moral issue and needs to be addressed as such.

"Let's say you repeal 110 and you start to criminalize substance use again. What you have is individuals being incarcerated and not receiving the help that they need," said Anderson. 

Measure 110 has led to the expansion of housing, treatment, and rehabilitation programs, with organizations like Volunteers of America Oregon receiving substantial funding to extend outreach and addiction services. 

4D Recovery, another beneficiary, provided peer mentorship to Ebony Brawley during her treatment, which she credits for her recovery. 

"Because of measure 110, I was able to change my story and break those chains, you know, and provide a life for myself and for my daughter that she probably wouldn't have had," said Brawley.

Meanwhile, back on the streets of Oregon, McPherson says he is ready for treatment after "Letting my addiction make the worst out of me."

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