Then and now: Oregon’s drug decriminalization two years later

Zeva Rosenbaum, News Contributor

Oregon passed Measure 110 to decriminalize possession of illegal drugs in November 2020,  becoming the first state to do so.  

For illegal drugs in smaller amounts Measure 110 reduced the penalty from criminal misdemeanor to the new Class E misdemeanor; the punishment for a Class E is a $100 fine or a health assessment. Measure 110 also dropped the penalty for large amounts from a felony to a Class A misdemeanor. Punishment for a Class A misdemeanor is a maximum of up to a year in jail and a potential fine of up to $6250.

According to Senate Bill 755, intended to clarify the rules outlined in M110, the amount restrictions vary depending on the substance; the escalation from a Class E to a Class A misdemeanor equates to two to 10 grams of cocaine or methamphetamine, 40 or more user units of hydrocodone, methadone, or LSD, etc. 

Possession of certain amounts of certain substances can still result in a felony charge, such as over five grams of heroin, 10 grams of cocaine or methamphetamine, or five grams of fentanyl. There are many other specific rules regarding substances lined out in SB755.   

Corvallis Police Lieutenant Benjamin Harvey said that, thanks to the change in violation level, the number of drug related criminal arrests has gone down and the number of violations has remained about the same, or perhaps decreased somewhat. He said officer discretion has become more of a factor in deciding whether to cite violators and call volume to the Recovery Center Hotline has been low, perhaps due to there being little to no consequence for violators not paying the $100 fine or calling the hotline.

“In Corvallis, reported overdoses sharply increased over the years since 2020 and officers have increasingly found the need to deploy Narcan,” Harvey said. “As Narcan has become more available to the public through the health centers, many overdoses are likely unreported.”

According to Harvey, the drug causing the most problems is currently fentanyl for a variety of reasons, such as fentanyl sold on the street not being of the pharmaceutical grade generally found in hospitals. With the concentration and dose of fentanyl present in any pills or powders being unknown, this significantly increases the odds of an overdose.

“Illicit fentanyl that is being sold on the street is being sold in various forms from counterfeit pills, to powders of various colors,” Harvey explained. “Because of this, it is very possible that someone could be purchasing something they believe to not contain fentanyl which actually does. An example of this would be counterfeit pills such as fake Xanax pills. Someone may purchase a pill thinking it to be Xanax, but it could actually be counterfeit and contain fentanyl.” 

Harvey said this and other factors increase the odds that “unsuspecting people” or even children could potentially take fentanyl and overdose. He warned that fentanyl is also used as a cutting agent in assorted other drugs  including cocaine, methamphetamine, and others, and a more recent trend is that fentanyl sold on the street is being mixed (cut) with powerful tranquilizers, which increases the danger of overdose, particularly as it’s so hard to know what may be mixed into a powder or counterfeit pill. 

M110 also included a program to provide grants to already-existing organizations and agencies to enable the creation of addiction recovery centers to triage and treat drug-users in need of care.

Despite grants and sharing funds with the Oregon Marijuana Fund, Measure 110 has negatively impacted the budgets of Oregon towns. 

The money in the OMF used to be distributed among population centers, schools, law enforcement, and certain mental health services, but now a substantial amount of that money is siphoned away by Measure 110.

While some community members support new House Bill 2089, which would pull OMF funds away from Measure 110 and put it back into its previous uses, others argue that this new bill would negatively affect the progress of the treatment-based measure.

According to the Oregon Health Authority, at least 60,000 people were served by Measure 110 being passed as they sought services through the program’s providers. Some of these services beyond addiction treatment include transitional housing, harm reduction supplies, and peer support specialists who help clients apply for community services like housing and health insurance.

This is all in line with Governor Tina Kotek’s proposal to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to address homelessness, housing, addiction, and mental health. 

Harvey said The Recovery Center Hotline has resources for those interested in recovery and/or treatment. 

“Previously Benton County conducted a drug treatment court aimed at diverting subjects from incarceration by providing treatment and life skills resources to change behavior,” Harvey said. “Currently, fewer people can participate in the program because they are not introduced into the criminal justice system.”

According to Discover Recovery, there has been a somewhat noticeable level of stability and M110 did help organizations fill staffing gaps, purchase vehicles, and attain recovery houses. 

Many funds have been tied up waiting for OHA’s approval, which didn’t come until mid-2022, so perhaps those funds will allow M110 to flourish in the future.  

Also passed in Nov. 2020, Measure 109 moved toward making psilocybin services legal. As of Jan. 2023, Oregon has begun accepting applications for licensure of psilocybin service centers and estimates these centers will open to customers over the age of 21 later in 2023.

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