United States

Oregon Legislature Approves Bill Reversing Drug Decriminalization Amid Overdose Crisis

Oregon's legislature has recently made a notable reversal in its drug decriminalization policy amid a severe overdose crisis, signaling a significant shift in approach to drug possession and use. This decision comes as the state grapples with escalating overdose fatalities and debates the efficacy of its previous drug laws.

Oregon Legislature Approves Bill Reversing Drug Decriminalization Photo: AP

On Friday, the Oregon Legislature approved a bill that reverses a significant aspect of the state's pioneering drug decriminalization law, recriminalizing the possession of small quantities of drugs. This move comes as authorities grapple with the most severe overdose crisis ever witnessed in the United States.

Following a 21-8 vote in the state Senate and a prior 51-7 approval in the House on Thursday, House Bill 4002 has been approved. The legislation is now awaiting Governor Tina Kotek's signature. In January, Gov. Kotek expressed willingness to sign a bill reversing decriminalization, as reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, from Portland and one of the bill's authors, emphasized that the passage of this legislation reinforces Oregon's dedication to ensuring citizens have access to necessary treatment and care. Lieber believes that this move marks the beginning of significant and transformative reforms within the justice system.

Under the measure, possessing small quantities of drugs like heroin or methamphetamine constitutes a misdemeanor, carrying a potential sentence of up to six months in jail. It grants police authority to seize the drugs and address their use in public areas such as sidewalks and parks. Additionally, the legislation mandates offering drug treatment as an alternative to criminal penalties.

Additionally, the legislation seeks to streamline the prosecution of drug sellers, enhance access to addiction medication, and ensure individuals can secure and maintain housing without facing discrimination based on their medication use.

The decriminalization of personal-use amounts of drugs, approved by voters in 2020 through Ballot Measure 110, was intended to redirect hundreds of millions of dollars in marijuana tax revenue toward drug treatment and harm reduction initiatives. However, this did not result in an enhanced care network for a state ranked second highest in the nation for substance use disorder rates and 50th for treatment access, as revealed in a 2023 audit report.

Amid Oregon facing one of the nation's most significant increases in overdose fatalities, Republican pressure escalated, prompting a well-funded campaign group to advocate for a ballot measure that would exacerbate the weakening of Measure 110.

Researchers have indicated that it is premature to conclude whether the law played a role in the increase in overdoses. Advocates of the decriminalization measure argue that the traditional method of arresting individuals for drug possession and use, which has been employed for decades, has proven ineffective.

Opposing lawmakers echoed these concerns, labeling the bill as a regression to the failed "war on drugs" era, which disproportionately affected and incarcerated numerous Black men.

Democratic Senator Lew Frederick, one of Portland's four Black senators, criticized the bill, citing numerous flaws. He emphasized that the repeated testimony highlighted the necessity of a medical approach to substance use disorder.

“I’m concerned that it (the bill) will attempt to use the same tactics of the past, and fail, only to reinforce the punishment narrative that has failed for 50 years,” he said, adding that the measure could further entangle individuals in the court system without improving their health.