By editorial board • 

Delivering on decriminalization requires a complete turnaround

Editor's Note: Several numbers were substantially off in this editorial due to a faulty interpretation applied to the initial set. Fortunately, those numbers, corrected here, did not affect the underlying analysis, conclusions or recommendations. We regret the error.

Almost one year ago to the day, voters sent Oregon plunging headlong into an unprecedented experiment with the handling of  heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, OxyContin and other leading agents of addiction.

By a margin of 58.5% to 41.5%, they opted to reclassify simple possession from a Class A misdemeanor to a Schedule E violation, tantamount to a minor traffic ticket, and excuse violators from the accompanying $100 fine in exchange for completing an addiction assessment over the phone. The idea was to beef up treatment services with an infusion from the taxation of legal marijuana and divert the otherwise jail-bound into cheaper and more successful rehab facilities.

We opposed the wholesale shift to such an unproven approach, saying, “We think it would be wiser to test this theory in smaller, more tightly controlled venues first. Assuming results were positive, that could lay the groundwork for an educational initiative introducing the concept more broadly.”

But our audience fell on deaf ears even in conservative and Republican-leaning Yamhill County. Voters here also gave the measure majority support, though by a somewhat narrower margin.

Well, the initial assessment is now in, courtesy of The Oregonian, and it’s not even mildly encouraging.

Thanks to decriminalization, Oregon is averaging only about 200 drug arrests a month this year, compared to about 1,200 a month last year. Drug arrests have been a major driver of court and corrections costs, so we stand to reap some significant savings there.

However, local law enforcement was never on board, and from the governor on down, higherups from outside the ranks seem to have made no effort to change that.

User-level possession cases, which ran about 12,000 last year, should have run about 9,000 so far this year. But only 1,280 tickets have been issued.

That’s a pitiful count, and it’s been driven in significant measure by a single Southern Oregon agency with a sympathetic chief. The Grants Pass Police Department, by itself, has accounted for almost one quarter of all drug tickets issued in the state to date.

According to The Oregonian, the multitude of law enforcement agencies serving the three counties of populous Metropolitan Portland have written a combined total of less than 100. And many agencies in rural parts of the state have yet to write their first.

That represents an abject failure that demands immediate attention. If we’re going to depend on tickets to fund addiction treatment, we need to ensure local police are as eager to tag a drug user as they are a speeding motorist.

But it gets worse. Much worse.

Of the 1,280 drug users unlucky enough to actually get ticketed, only 51 opted for a drug assessment in lieu of a fine. Only eight of those requested treatment information and not a single one actually followed through by entering a program.

If the idea was to drive drug users into treatment, going 0 for 9,000 or more is about as bad as it gets. You could probably do better than that cold-calling from a phone book.

Adding insult to injury, almost half the users choosing a fine over a treatment assessment simply blew it off. That suggests two things to us: We need to make the fine both larger and harder to evade.

As we said in an original editorial, “The public would be best-served by a system sending users into treatment and pushers into prison. Cutting the user base would free prison space, reduce the drug market and deter drug-associated property crime.” Our issue wasn’t with the goal, it was with what we perceived to be little likelihood of achieving it.

Now we’re faced with a depressing initial assessment. Success remains possible, but it’s going to require an uncommonly powerful push from Oregon’s legislative, executive and law enforcement leaders — something we’ve seen nary a hint of so far.



Good but depressing piece. With so much Fentanyl being laced into other drugs every time these folks use they are playing a bit of a game of Russian Roulette. Fentanyl precursors come in from China into Mexico and are processed and then stream up through our southern border. Its odorless and colorless and potentially lethal in extremely small amounts. This could get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

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