Recipients of Measure 110 Cash Aren’t Putting the Money to Work Fast Enough, State Auditor Says

It’s a common problem for Oregon programs that have raised a lot of taxpayer cash.

TROUBLED: Man in front of Washington Center in the spring of 2023. (Brian Burk)

Measure 110, the ballot measure that decriminalized smallish amounts of drugs for personal use in 2020, is suffering the same woes as many other new, well-intentioned laws in Oregon: It’s raising plenty of money, but not all of those funds are getting to people and projects in need.

That’s the main conclusion of an audit of M110 released by Oregon Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade today.

“Since it’s been implemented, the top question on everyone’s minds has been: Is Measure 110 working?” audits director Kip Memmott said in a statement today. “It’s a complicated question to answer and much of the public conversation about Measure 110 is outside the scope of this review. We identified important progress being made, but it’s clear there is still much work to be done.”

Thanks to the measure, the state has distributed $261 million from cannabis taxes to drug treatment providers, the audit says. “But in the first year of the grants—two-thirds of the way through the initial grant term—providers reported spending just over a third of grant funds amid difficulty hiring staff and other obstacles,” auditors wrote.

Underspending is a problem that has plagued the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund, Metro’s supportive housing services measure, and Multhomah County’s Preschool for All program. Taxes to support such measures have made Portland one of the highest-tax cities in the nation.

M110, which passed in November 2020 amid the pandemic and a surge in fentanyl, has angered many voters in the state, particularly in Portland, where it’s common to see people smoking the high-powered synthetic opioid on sidewalks and in parks. Overdoses are on the rise, too, with more than 500 people dying this year alone, up from 200 in 2019, before the measure became law, according to Multnomah County data.

The audit describes a tsunami of fentanyl in Oregon and Idaho’s high-intensity drug trafficking area (a federal designation). In 2022, more than 3 million fentanyl pills were seized there, up from just 690 in 2018.

The measure’s critics have filed ballot initiatives to overturn it in 2024, and lawmakers have held hearings on modifying it the the wake of broad public outcry.

Among the risks going forward is that the Oregon Health Authority, which administers the M110 program, won’t be able to gather enough reliable data to measure its effectiveness by the end of 2025, five years after it was passed.

“OHA has some confidence in its ability to track trends in individuals accessing treatment and time to access housing,” auditors said. “However, it is not clear whether the agency will be able to track other legislatively specified trends, including changes in treatment providers, culturally specific providers, access to harm reduction, and access to housing. Pinning down specific health outcomes for clients receiving services, another legislative request, also appears uncertain.”

Measure 110′s Oversight and Accountability Council, which works with OHA to disburse money to providers, expects to award another $150 in cannabis tax funds million through June 2025, auditors said.

Among the good news in the audit: The $260 million in grants has “successfully helped expand community-based services and, despite some challenges, helped deliver accessible services to highly vulnerable people”; and the oversight council has “prioritized cultural competence among grantees. This focus is likely to improve service access statewide and help address inequities in substance use treatment and outcomes.”

The most avid backer of the measure, the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, said the audit proved that “services funded by the voter-approved measure have increased dramatically in our communities.”

But OHA must do more to make M110 work, the group said. “The audit shows that despite rollout challenges—including a nearly two-year delay in receiving funding—Oregonians struggling with addiction are getting help now, and OHA and the state must do even more. Everyone in Oregon who needs addiction services should be able to receive them.”

OHA said it accepted points raised in the audit.

“We agree with each of the audit’s recommendations,” OHA said in a statement. “OHA staff are committed to presenting the Legislature with a plan to report Measure 110 outcome metrics, better report on staffing in Measure 110 funded programs (including youth programs and culturally relevant services), improve the consistency of data collection, identify gaps in care and barriers to service in each county, and continue to improve the Measure 110 grantmaking process.”

The audit confirmed that arrests for possession have fallen since February 2021, when M110 took effect, but that the mechanisms designed to get people into treatment aren’t working as well as the measure’s backers’ promises.

“The three-month moving average of possession arrests was roughly 1,200 before the pandemic’s onset in early 2020, dropped to about 700 during late 2020, then fell further once decriminalization took effect, averaging less than 200 in the first half of 2022,” auditors said.

In the place of criminal charges, people found with small amounts of drugs are given new Class E citations, which carry a $100 fine and can be waived if the violator calls a hotline to get a substance-use assessment. Citation-related hotline calls averaged just 10 a month through June 2023, auditors said.

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