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Oregon’s first-in-the-nation drug decriminalization measure has been heavily scrutinized since voters approved it two years ago, but as state funding finally begins to trickle down to addiction service providers, advocates say who are starting to see results.

“It’s going to take a long time to fully see what’s going on,” said Hannah Studer, deputy director of the behavioral health nonprofit Bridges to Change. “We have to stay the course because this is life or death and this is really building a whole new future for the state that the state deserves.”

Measure 110 passed with 58% of the vote in 2020. It decriminalized possession of personal use amounts of hard drugs, including heroin, methamphetamine, and fentanyl, and redirected a significant portion of sales tax revenue the state’s marijuana, which had previously gone to schools, police and local governments — to fund grants for addiction services.

But critics accuse the law of fueling addiction and crime in parts of the state, particularly Portland, and the measure became a hot topic in this year’s gubernatorial race.

“It’s worked really well for drug dealers and drug users because we have an outdoor drug market,” said David Potts, president of the Association for Lent Neighborhood Life.

Portland Police Association President Aaron Schmautz told Fox News in September that police don’t want to see “mass incarceration as a result of low drug use” and should prioritize treatment.

A heroin user prepares to inject on March 23, 2016 in New London, CT.critics accuse the law of fueling addiction and crime in parts of the state, especially Portland.Getty Images

“But you need some teeth for that,” Schmautz said. “There has to be a way to require this treatment.”

Drug possession is now a Class E misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $100, which people can have waived by calling a hotline and completing a treatment evaluation. Oregon Health & Science University chief of addiction medicine Dr. Todd Korthuis said few people are calling the hotline, and most are only doing so to get their subpoena waived .

“Only 1 percent of those ticketed for drug possession requested information about treatment resources,” he told a state senate committee earlier this year. “In my conversations with treatment leaders across the state, not a single patient has had a patient enrolled in treatment because of these tickets.”

Of the 3,645 summonses issued through November, 68 percent ended in a conviction because the suspect failed to appear in court, according to the Oregon Department of Justice.

Ron Williams, director of outreach for the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, which advocates for Measure 110, isn’t concerned about the lack of participation and believes people should be able to seek recovery services on their own terms.

“There is very little evidence that coercive treatment works,” Williams said. “Most people who use drugs recreationally don’t think they have a problem and therefore don’t think they need treatment. So why would you force them into treatment?

A tourniquet flies from the arm of a 28-year-old man who has just injected heroin.A tourniquet flies from the arm of a 28-year-old man who just injected heroin in Portland, Oregon.Portland Press Herald via Getty

The slow rollout of the measure also raised concerns. Although the decriminalization took effect on February 1, 2021, the state did not approve the bulk of the grants until the end of August.

“We know there have been delays from the state in getting funds to providers,” Studer said. “However, we now have the funds and can really begin to provide the services that are desperately needed in Oregon.”

The state has now awarded $302 million in grants for harm reduction, overdose prevention, recovery housing and more. In most cases, it cannot be used for residential treatment of patients, which is primarily funded by Medicaid, Williams said.

Bridges to Change received about $12.5 million, which Studer said saved one of its programs that was on the verge of closing due to lack of funding and will allow them to hire dozens more employees and fund 202 new beds .

“Women in our women’s housing programs who can have a safe place for themselves and their children,” Studer said. “People from more rural areas of Clackamas [County] who were never able to access supportive housing, who have now paid for supportive housing to live in it for as long as they need.”

But Oregon’s addiction rate remains one of the highest in the country.

“We’ve seen an increase in overdose,” Schmautz said. “We are having a huge epidemic of fentanyl and other drugs in our community.”

Drug overdose deaths have increased nationwide since the start of 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Williams argued that Oregon’s increase in overdose deaths remains below the West Coast average, so it’s not fair to blame Measure 110.

“Substance use shouldn’t be a criminal matter. It’s a health issue,” Williams said. “The idea is to transform from a criminal justice approach to a health, science-backed, health-based approach.”

graphicNotes: Provisional counts for 12-month periods ending July of each year (the most recent month for which data were available). Projected provisional counts represent estimates of the number of deaths adjusted for incomplete reporting.CDC

Schmautz agreed that addiction is a medical problem, but attributed many of the “social ills” facing Portland to addiction.

“Homelessness going through the roof, mental illness … low-level crime and even homicides and other things,” he said.

Williams said it’s not fair to pin the increase in crime on Measure 110, since the only thing the law legalizes is personal drug use.

“Stealing is still a crime. Carjacking is still a crime. Theft is still a crime,” Williams said. “Homelessness, crime, these problems existed before Measure 110 was on the ballot and they were increasing before Measure 110.”

For decades, police used possible drug possession as a pretext to stop and search people, Williams said.

“Across the country, these people have been black and brown,” he said. “So that kind of diminishes … those negative impacts on people in communities of color. And it transforms the nature of substance use from being something that’s punished to something that’s served.”

Overall, Studer encouraged the patience of Oregonians, who he said deserve better than the old approach to addiction.

“Deserving better will take time,” he said.

Source: Oregon must ‘stay the course’ on soft heroin laws despite soaring overdose rates: drug law advocates

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