Supporters and Critics Explore Changes to Reduce Street Drug Use
Defenders of Measure 110 that decriminalized possession of small quantities of drugs are looking for refinements in Portugal. Powerful critics of the controversial ballot measure are looking for changes in the 2024 general election ballot. Defenders and critics both plan to propose changes at the 2024 legislative session.
Oregon’s pioneering, voter-approved experiment with drug decriminalization has lost some of its public support because of increased street drug use and drug overdoses. Drafters of Measure 110 based their treatment-over-imprisonment proposal on a heralded decriminalization program in Portugal.
Portugal created a centralized institute to administer its program that included easily accessible treatment centers, including spaces for drug withdrawal and designated indoor drug use sites for addicts not ready to enter treatment.
After being hailed as a success, Portugal’s system has become fragmented and under-staffed, leading to an uptick in drug overdoses, though its fentanyl overdoses remain lower than elsewhere in Europe.
The delegation of Oregon legislators and Measure 110 backers will go to Portugal next month to ask questions and get answers on how to shore up Oregon’s decriminalization effort. While the objectives of the two plans are similar, there are differences. In Portugal, drug users appear before a commission that determines whether an individual needs treatment or should pay a fine. The commission has other powers that can persuade someone to enter treatment. The protocol can include supervised, safe indoor drug use in designated spaces.
João Castel-Branco Goulão, Portugal’s national drug coordinator, told the Oregon Capital Chronicle, “Just to decriminalize per se does not lead you to any kind of results. It’s very important to decriminalize, but this movement has to be followed or has to be accompanied with the availability of treatment and harm reduction measures.”
“If you could swap Portugal’s problems for Oregon’s problems, it would be a good deal for Oregon,” according to Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine in California and co-principal investigator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse Clinical Trials Network. Oregon’s problem, he says, is the slow rollout of treatment services.
He advises Oregon fact-finders to visit local officials and ask questions. “You have to get outside that bubble to really see what’s going on,” he said.
It’s very important to decriminalize, accompanied with treatment and harm reduction measures.
Measure 110 Back to the Ballot
What’s been going on in Portland streets and elsewhere in the state has prompted a powerful group of Oregonians to propose a pair of initiatives for the November 2024 ballot that would recriminalize possession of hard drugs including methamphetamine and ban possession in public spaces. The revision stops short of repealing Measure 110 by retaining a focus on diversion to treatment.
Backers include former Republican state lawmaker Max Williams, political consultant Dan Lavey associated with People for Portland, longtime progressive political strategist Paige Richardson and Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton.
“Measure 110 didn’t cause Oregon’s addiction and overdose crisis, but it is making them worse,” says Williams who heads the coalition. “Oregon leads the nation in youth overdose deaths and overall rates of use and deaths from overdoses are rising at higher rates than other states. And this human tragedy is making our streets and neighborhoods less safe. Oregon can do better.”
The coalition has filed paperwork with the Oregon Secretary of State and is expected to compile a sizable campaign piggybank. Contributors include Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle who donated $300,000, Nike co-founder Phil Knight who donated $200,000 and Portland businessman and philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer who contributed $50,000.
Initial Focus on Legislative Fixes
The group visiting Portugal and the group seeking to revise Measure 110 both plan to urge the 2024 legislature to enact changes, though likely not the same ones.
The travelling party includes Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, who chairs the House Interim Committee on Behavioral Health and Health Care; Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D- Beaverton; Senator Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, chair of Senate Judiciary; and Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, who sits on the House Interim Committee on Behavioral Health and Health Care and House Judiciary.
Other members visiting Portugal include Sgt. Aaron Smauchtz, president of the Portland Police Association, Detective Scotty Nowning, president of the Salem Police Association, and nine others involved with drug treatment, mental health and health justice.
Nosse didn’t specify amendments he may seek in the upcoming session, though he said Oregon needs more medical detox programs and follow-up housing for recovery addicts.
Morgan, a vocal opponent of Measure 110 because of its impact on streets and parks statewide, said she plans to ask tough questions about rising crime rates and drug overdoses.
Lieber says the message sent by voters who supported Measure 110 was that addiction is a public health crisis, not a criminal justice crisis. “One of the things that I’m very interested in is understanding how we can put more accountability into our public health response,” Lieber says. “I think Portugal has figured out how to do that and I just need to go and see it.”