Oregon lawmakers will convene in Salem on Feb. 5 for a session that can last no more than 35 days. That’s not much time to settle a raging dispute over Measure 110, the drug decriminalization law voters passed in 2020.
To say many Oregonians are having buyer’s remorse would be an understatement: Well-funded critics, led by former GOP lawmaker and Department of Corrections director Max Williams, are threatening a repeal on the November ballot. Meanwhile, a broad coalition of social justice organizations are furious that Democratic lawmakers last week proposed recriminalizing drug use.
Here’s a primer on what to expect:
The argument won’t be about data.
On Jan. 22, a small army of academics convened in Salem to present the results of two years of research into Measure 110. They interviewed cops, prosecutors, drug users and addiction treatment providers. They counted arrests here and in other states, studied calls for police service in Oregon before and after Measure 110 passed and, perhaps most significantly, looked at overdose deaths.
Their (albeit preliminary) conclusion? “None of the data we’ve looked at suggest M110 has had any impact on crime compared with neighboring states, at all,” says Dr. Alex Kral, an epidemiologist at RTI International who’s been studying drug use for 30 years. “From a scientific perspective, it certainly seems like M110 hasn’t made things worse with crime or overdose deaths.”
Among the most convincing charts Kral presented: one that showed similar fentanyl overdose trajectories in several Western states, with the worst outcomes in Washington. Kral cautions that the data, which goes only through 2022, could change.
But pollster John Horvick of DHM Research says voters aren’t interested in nuance. “They want open-air drug use to stop,” Horvick says. “And they want people to get treatment.”
The argument will be about jail time and “deflection.”
The Democratic co-chairs of the Joint Interim Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response, Sen. Kate Lieber (D-Portland) and Rep. Jason Kropf (D-Bend), proposed last week to make possession of many drugs a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail.
Oregonians for Safety & Recovery, a coalition of left-leaning advocacy groups, went ballistic. “We all want real solutions to the overdose crisis and homelessness,” said Gloria Ochoa-Sandoval, policy and political director at Unite Oregon Action. “But what state lawmakers are proposing is an utter failure of leadership.”
Meanwhile, Republicans and a coalition of prosecutors, police chiefs, sheriffs and the League of Oregon Cities—led by the city of Portland—said 30 days in jail wasn’t enough. They want a bigger stick: Class A misdemeanor charges that could mean up to a year in jail.
Democrats also proposed coupling recriminalization with a “deflection” process that would allow people caught with drugs to avoid a conviction and jail by going through an assessment and referral to treatment services.
Critics on the right said deflection services would not be available in many jurisdictions, and would work no better than the current system of issuing citations with a helpline number—one of the biggest failures of Measure 110. Data shows few cops bother giving the citations and even fewer offenders bother calling the helpline.
Democrats will probably give more ground.
Tim Colahan, a retired district attorney for Harney County, said Democrats’ proposal of a Class C misdemeanor doesn’t give judges enough leverage to get people the services they need. He’s skeptical that a Class B misdemeanor, which carries up to six months in jail, would either.
“I don’t see it,” says Colahan, former director of the Oregon District Attorneys Association. “It’s simply not enough of a hammer to get people into treatment. They are going to be in denial until the bitter end and sometimes it takes jail.”
Tera Hurst, director of the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, which advocates for Measure 110, says she’s extremely disappointed but also resigned to what may happen in Salem. “This is a political decision, not a policy decision,” she says.
Hurst had hoped the debate would be about ending public consumption of drugs, she says, but it’s moved far beyond that. Now that Democrats have made an opening offer that includes recriminalization, she fears they will be amenable to moving further toward where Republicans want them to go.
“I worked in the car business for seven years,” Hurst says. “You don’t start your negotiations where you expect to end.”