By editorial board • 

Decriminalizatrion a disaster, but treatment retains promise

Oregon’s bold experiment in decriminalizing possession of heroin, meth, cocaine and fentanyl — and investing marijuana tax money into expanded addiction treatment, in hopes of shifting the emphasis for users from punishment to rehabilitation — was widely heralded at the time.

The delivery vehicle, Measure 110, drew support from just under 58.5% of voters in the November 2020 general election, dwarfing the 41.5% opposition. It virtually swept the valley and coast on its way to carrying 17 of the state’s 36 counties, including rural, Republican-leaning Yamhill.

Though there may have been others, we can find record of only four newspapers in opposition, the McMinnville News-Register, Bend Bulletin, Medford Mail Tribune and Pendleton East Oregonian. The Portland media, which reached vastly more readers, were united in support.

Funding was even more lopsided, supporters raising almost $5.5 million in cash, compared to just $165,140 for opponents.

And today? Not so much.

A recent survey by DHM Research found 63% of respondents favoring the same remedial approach we do — reinstatement of criminal sanctions for possession of hard drugs, coupled with retention of the measure’s other main thrust, creation of a new state revenue stream to enhance addition recovery efforts. A separate survey by Emerson Polling pegged it at 64%.

The nub of the issue is this: Without threat of painful criminal sanctions, users have insufficient incentive to seek treatment. Evidence strongly suggests that external motivation is required in the vast majority of cases.

Measure 110 reduced the status of simple possession of narcotics from a Class A misdemeanor, carrying the potential of significant jail time, to a Class E violation, carrying a $100 fine. A modest fine isn’t remotely enough, particularly if you have no intention of paying it, which we suspect is typically the case.

The measure also failed in one other important respect. It went into effort just three months after passage, allowing only a fraction of the time needed to get a robust addiction referral and treatment system up and running.

The passage of three years has remedied that problem. The recovery system is much better prepared today to handle an influx of new clients.

The challenge now is in creating such an influx, and the threat of jail time otherwise seems to us the only viable incentive for users to sign up.

Users are much more likely to opt for diversion when the alternative is a stint in jail. Call it coercion if you like, but it serves as a way to help users get their lives back on track, and that makes it a winning option for the public at large as well.

Opposition forces are readying ballot measures to either fully repeal 110 or reverse its decriminalization component, but we’d much rather see the Legislature address the issue when it convenes again early next year.

The track record for legislation hammered out in an open public process, allowing all manner of interests to weigh in, greatly exceeds that for initiatives. Initiatives often prove badly flawed, as Measure 110 so aptly demonstrates.

Back in 2020, we warned:

“Statewide decriminalization has never been tested. And it seems a radical, counterintuitive approach on its face.

“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.”

Instead, the state plunged into a full-scale, border-to-border roll of the dice, and it hasn’t paid off.

According to The Oregonian, only 189 users ticketed by police over the last three years have voluntarily undergone screening for addiction treatment — a mere trickle by any measure. The public is furious about it, and rightly so.



What public are you talking about? And what is the source of your information — i.e., references?

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