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Oregon considers scrapping voter-approved effort at drug decriminalization

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In 2020, Oregon voters passed the most liberal drug law in the country. Instead of arresting users for possessing small amounts of drugs, police now give them a citation and point them toward treatment. The law also funneled more money into recovery. But more than three years later, the drug crisis in Oregon, like many other places battling the rise of fentanyl, has gotten worse. And that has prompted a fierce political debate in the state about whether the measure has been a success or a failure. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: On a gray November afternoon in downtown Portland, Officer Joey Yoo is hunched over a city-issued mountain bike. The sidewalk is dotted with tiny scraps of tinfoil, used for smoking fentanyl. Down the block, a man officers say is high on meth is raging about his stuff being stolen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, I do.

WILSON: Officer Yoo scrawls on a thick pad of paper.

JOEY YOO: If you have any questions - why I'm talking to you, why I'm giving you this citation...

WILSON: Yoo is talking to a young man he stopped for using fentanyl in public. We're not using his name because he was in no condition to give us permission to do so. The man is staring down at the ground, not making eye contact with Yoo. The little he says is hardly audible.

YOO: Do you have any family here?

WILSON: The man doesn't appear to respond. Yoo hands the man several slips of paper. One is a hundred-dollar citation. Another has the phone number to a state-funded hotline. If he calls and gets assessed for addiction, the fine and citation go away.

YOO: Like I said, you don't have to, you know, go into treatment, but they will give you information about how to get into treatment. That's all you have to do.

WILSON: Court records show the man never made the call, and that's typical. So far, police have handed out more than 7,000 citations. But as of December, only a few hundred people had called the hotline to get assessed for substance use disorder. This exchange, a citation for drug use instead of an arrest, is a direct result of Measure 110. Advocates argued the criminal justice system didn't effectively treat addiction. They also said it disproportionately harmed people of color. And the state expected the measure to reduce racial disparities in conviction rates. But back on the street, Officer Yoo says handing out citations doesn't seem to actually make a dent in the problem.

YOO: The same people that I gave a citation to yesterday, I see today doing the same thing.

WILSON: What's happening here on the streets of Portland has led to a lot of passionate testimony in the past several months in the state Capitol, where lawmakers invited people to come weigh in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATE LIEBER: All right. Thank you. I am going to open up an informational hearing of the Joint Interim Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response.

WILSON: During hearings, some argued that taking away criminal penalties for drug use hasn't worked. Others worried about the safety of their employees and the health of their businesses. Lisa Schroeder owns Mother's Bistro and Bar in downtown Portland.

LISA SCHROEDER: The police occasionally come in and clean up a specific area with their superficial presence, and the drug market moves along to another corner. The quality of life for our citizenry, from the user to the general population, is suffering.

WILSON: But addiction doctors and criminal justice experts in Oregon say a lot happened between 2020 and now besides Measure 110. The pandemic taxed the health care system. The fentanyl crisis got worse around the country. Homelessness grew. Doctor Andy Mendenhall is an addiction medicine physician and the CEO of Central City Concern, a social service organization in Portland that gets a small amount of money from Measure 110. He testified at the hearing and, in an interview after, said people are pointing at Measure 110 and saying it's the reason for Oregon's problems.

ANDY MENDENHALL: When in reality, it is our decadeslong underbuilt system of behavioral health, substance use disorders, shelter and affordable housing care that are the primary drivers.

WILSON: And some treatment providers say if lawmakers recriminalize drugs, it will just take Oregon back to a different system that wasn't working.

SHANNON JONES ISADORE: Arrest records impacts people that are looking for employment. It impacts their housing. It perpetuates a cycle of poverty.

WILSON: Shannon Jones Isadore runs a recovery program that specializes in working with African American and veteran communities in Portland.

JONES ISADORE: A better solution is to dramatically increase our street services and outreach.

WILSON: There's a general agreement that, whatever should happen next to Measure 110, Oregon made a radical change to its drug laws before the infrastructure was in place to really support it. But there are parts of this law that aren't being debated. It allocated hundreds of millions of dollars in cannabis tax revenue to fund new recovery programs. That expanded the state's treatment capacity, even though a recent study from state health officials said Oregon was years away from being able to treat everyone who needed it.

JOE BAZEGHI: This is our main residence - 16 beds.

WILSON: Joe Bazeghi helps run Recovery Works NW, which opened a new detox facility last fall.

BAZEGHI: It's Measure 110-funded. The purchase, the retrofit - so the remodel - as well as supplying of this facility was accomplished with support for Measure 110.

WILSON: There's a dining room, game area and, off to one side, a living room for recovery group meetings. Most of the people here are really sick, withdrawing from fentanyl.

ALEAH: Me - I feel a lot better than I did yesterday, so...

WILSON: Aleah is one of them. NPR is just identifying her by her first name because she's still a patient in the detox facility. She's been here for five days. While we're talking, her boyfriend, who just completed his residential treatment, comes up to one of the windows.

ALEAH: I wish I could come out. At least we can talk through a window.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Just real quick...

ALEAH: You look so good.

WILSON: His name is Trey Rubin. He recently moved to a sober house in Portland.

TREY RUBIN: I mean, I want to be successful and do things in my life, and that's definitely the first step, you know what I mean? It's just go to treatment and just get your life back, you know? You can't really do anything if you're not clean, you know?

WILSON: He says he's thinking about what he may do now that he's not using drugs.

RUBIN: Like, I love, like, dirt bikes and stuff like that and writing. But I don't know exactly what I want to do yet, but - maybe want to go to school to be an X-ray technician or something like that.

WILSON: Oregon has faced some criticism for how slow the expansion of treatment like this has been. But if anything, state lawmakers say they want to invest more in recovery programs. Oregon lawmakers start their new legislative session today. Democrats who control the legislature and the governor's office have indicated they're open to recriminalizing drugs, which could effectively end the most controversial piece of this legislative experiment.

For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIA MARGARET SONG, "APATHY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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