Mike Schmidt Endorses Proposal to Recriminalize Hard Drugs

It’s a striking turnaround for the progressive district attorney who swept into office promising to end the War on Drugs.

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt. (Mick Hangland-Skill)

Tonight, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt testified in favor of Oregon legislators’ latest proposal to recriminalize hard drugs, ending a lengthy public silence on whether he supports rolling back the heart of the 2020 ballot measure that made Oregon the first state in the country to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of heroin, meth and fentanyl.

“What we have seen over the last few years as fentanyl has hit the West Coast is unacceptable, and we need to take action to help those struggling with addiction,” he said. “We can approach addiction as the health issue it is, while also holding people accountable for how they impact our community.”

Schmidt won office in 2020 in a landslide on a progressive platform that included the promise of not returning to the “failed ‘war on drugs’” policies of the past. In recent months, he’s pushed an alternative proposal that would keep the core of Measure 110 intact: penalizing the public use of the hard drugs voters decriminalized. When WW asked him earlier this month whether he supported recriminalizing hard drugs, he pointed to his proposed public use ban and declined to answer the question.

But legislators have stood firm with their intention to restore misdemeanor penalties for possession of such drugs, and Schmidt is now bowing to political reality: Spiking overdoses and the visible impact of addiction on Portland’s streets has made decriminalization unpalatable for many voters. Schmidt faces Nathan Vasquez, a challenger to his right and from within his own office, in the upcoming May election.

Schmidt’s turnaround is even more striking because it arrives just days after he received a $30,000 contribution, his largest, from the Drug Policy Alliance, the deep-pocketed drug policy reform group that backed Measure 110.

The bill, as currently proposed, would make possession of small amounts of illicit drugs an “unclassified” misdemeanor, with penalties of up to 180 days in jail. That penalty, however, is meant as a last resort, legislators say. Instead, it’s meant to push users into diversion programs and treatment, through which they can avoid charges or expunge their record.

Still, the law as currently designed will result in 2,200 more convictions per year and disproportionately affect Black Oregonians, according to a state analysis.

Opponents of the bill say it ignores the fact that the state continues to lack sufficient drug treatment services. “This bill does not change that sad reality,” testified Multnomah County public defender Grant Hartley on Monday.

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