‘We’ve had to make a 180’: What Oregonians say they got wrong with decriminalization

Click to play video: 'Oregon warns B.C. about drug decriminalization'
Oregon warns B.C. about drug decriminalization
With B.C. now more than a year into its own decriminalization experiment, experts in Oregon are warning officials about their missteps. Paul Johnson reports – Apr 18, 2024

As the debate over B.C.’s drug decriminalization pilot rages, officials in Oregon are reflecting on missteps they say led to a similar initiative being rolled back in the Pacific Northwest state.

In 2020, nearly 60 per cent of Oregon voters approved Measure 110, which replaced drug possession charges with a $100 citation that could be avoided if a person called a state-funded hotline seeking treatment.

Last month, a bipartisan majority of state legislators voted to roll that measure back, reinstating a misdemeanour for possession starting Sept. 1, but one unique within the state’s criminal justice system.

Click to play video: 'B.C. drug decriminalization under fire again'
B.C. drug decriminalization under fire again

The default penalty is probation with mandatory addiction treatment, with no jail time or fines. If someone breaks probation they could face up to six months in jail, but all criminal records under the offence are automatically expunged within at least three years.

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“It has not worked here,” Clackamas County Commissioner Ben West told Global News of the decriminalization pilot.

West, who is also a registered nurse, represents a mostly liberal Portland suburb and said public opinion has turned against decriminalization.

“People weren’t getting care, they were just getting a $100 ticket and allowed to be on this dysfunctional hamster wheel of drug use: Narcan, drug, Narcan, until we find you again and we find you dead on the street,” he said.

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While opinion has soured on Measure 110, officials and professionals Global News spoke with across the political spectrum agreed the drug crisis must be handled by the medical system rather than the criminal justice system.

Click to play video: 'Data from B.C. drug decriminalization pilot released'
Data from B.C. drug decriminalization pilot released

Some critics of the state’s decriminalization pilot say Oregon moved too quickly, without having the necessary tools in place.

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Maxine Dexter, a medical doctor and Democratic state legislator who represents downtown Portland, believes the explosion of fentanyl is the cause of the city’s surging drug deaths, but that decriminalization exacerbated it.

“We didn’t get the infrastructure in place in time before we decriminalized, so there wasn’t the treatment available,” she said.

“We didn’t have a mechanism for making sure people had an opportunity to use those citations to get into treatment, they were just ignored.”

House Bill 4002, which reversed decriminalization, has not been universally popular.

Critics say it will disproportionately harm people of colour and the homeless.

“We asked for real solutions including more treatment, housing, prevention programs, community revitalization efforts, and non-police mobile crisis response teams,” Jessica Maravilla, policy director of the ACLU of Oregon said in a statement after the measure passed.

In three years, only about 1,000 people actually called the state’s treatment hotline.

West believes the number of people who actually accessed treatment could be as low as in the dozens.

“It didn’t work here and we’ve had to make a 180,” he said. “Don’t follow our bad example.”

Click to play video: 'VPD says drug seizures down during decriminalization pilot'
VPD says drug seizures down during decriminalization pilot

B.C. Premier David Eby said the province has responded to concerns about B.C.’s decriminalization pilot by passing legislation aimed at restricting where people can do drugs.

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“Our core belief here is that addiction is a mental health issue, is a health issue, is not a criminal law issue. But because we have compassion about that doesn’t mean that anything goes,” he said.

“We have opened hundreds of new treatment beds just this year alone, and we have attempted to put in place a system that recognizes some of the impacts that we’ve seen of the ongoing toxic drug crisis that we are in, including public drug use by some individuals, and we are not going to let it go. We are going to ensure that communities are safe.”

Public drug use remains banned in a number of areas including near schools, daycares and playgrounds, however, the province’s legislation expanding the banned areas remains hung up by an injunction pending a legal challenge.

Back in Portland, Dexter said the state is now trying to find a new balance that avoids criminalizing drug users while reducing drug use itself.

“A public health focus for addiction is absolutely the right thing to do. The war on drugs here in America didn’t work. We are not trying to reinvent that wheel,” she said.

“We have got to get treatment out and become more available than fentanyl is on our streets — until that happens, people have addiction … and they will self-medicate.”


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