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Lawmakers Pass Bill to Recriminalize Drug Possession

Responding to the Deadliest Overdose Crisis in U.S. History

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek speaks during a signing ceremony in Washington, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

AP-A bill recriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs was passed by the Oregon Legislature on Friday, undoing a key part of the state’s first-in-the-nation drug decriminalization law as governments struggle to respond to the deadliest overdose crisis in U.S. history.

The state Senate approved House Bill 4002 in a 21-8 vote after the House passed it 51-7 on Thursday. The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Tina Kotek, who said in January that she is open to signing a bill that would roll back decriminalization, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

“With this bill, we are doubling down on our commitment to make sure Oregonians have access to the treatment and care that they need,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, of Portland, one of the bill’s authors, adding that its passage will “be the start of real and transformative change for our justice system.” The measure makes the possession of small amounts of drugs such as heroin or methamphetamine a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail. It enables police to confiscate the drugs and crack down on their use on sidewalks and in parks. Drug treatment is to be offered as an alternative to criminal penalties. The bill also aims to make it easier to prosecute people who sell drugs. It increases access to addiction medication, and to obtain and keep housing without facing discrimination for using that medication.

Decriminalization of personal-use amounts of drugs, OK’d by voters in 2020 under Ballot Measure 110, was supposed to move hundreds of millions of dollars of marijuana tax revenues into drug treatment and harm reduction programs. That didn’t translate into an improved care network for a state with the second-highest rate of substance use disorder in the nation and ranked 50th for access to treatment, according to an audit report released in 2023. And with Oregon experiencing one of the nation’s largest spikes in overdose deaths, Republican pressure intensified, and a well-funded campaign group called for a ballot measure that would further weaken Measure 110. Researchers have said it was too soon to determine whether the law contributed to the overdose surge, and supporters of the decriminalization measure say the decadeslong approach of arresting people for possessing and using drugs didn’t work. Lawmakers who opposed the bill voiced those concerns. Some called it a return to the war on drugs that disproportionally impacted and imprisoned millions of Black men.

Democratic Sen. Lew Frederick, of Portland, one of four Black senators, said the bill had too many flaws and that testimony on the bill heard again and again was that substance use disorder requires primarily a medical response. “I’m concerned that it (the bill) will attempt to use the same tactics of the past, and fail, only to reinforce the punishment narrative that has failed for 50 years,” he said, adding that the measure could move more people into the court system without making them healthier.


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