As Oregon Lawmakers Criminalize Drugs Again, Washington Offers a Cautionary Example

Our northern neighbor already has the policing tools lawmakers want to resurrect here, but its fentanyl death problem is worse than Oregon’s.

BACK ON THE MERRY-GO-ROUND: Washington, where Spokane's Looff Carousel stands, never decriminalized drugs. (Kirk Fisher/Shutterstock)

House Bill 4002, the compromise measure that would recriminalize drugs that were decriminalized when voters roundly approved Measure 110 in 2020, is sailing through the Oregon Legislature. It passed the House by a 51-7 vote Feb. 29 and passed the 21-8 Senate last night.

The bill, which criminalizes the possession of hard drugs, including meth and heroin, and calls for a sentence of up to 180 days in jail upon conviction, is a win for Republicans and for the well-heeled critics who threatened a ballot measure repeal if lawmakers didn’t act.

That group, the Fix Measure 110 Coalition, declared victory, saying HB 4002 “achieves 85% of what we proposed.”

It’s a political win for Democrats, as well, in that passage of the bill will provide some level of immunity from voters angry with drug-fueled chaos on the streets.

Likely passage of the bill comes at the expense of criminal justice reformers, who have argued that Measure 110 wasn’t given enough time and that recriminalization will disproportionately punish people of color.

“HB 4002 is a profoundly flawed bill that does not contain the solutions Oregon needs,” said Andy Ko, executive director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice. “Now, instead of focusing all our efforts on fighting for overdose prevention, treatment and crisis outreach, we must also work to lessen the damage that HB 4002 will cause. The impact of disparate enforcement on communities of color also means we will need to press both for racial data reporting and greater expansion of funding for culturally specific treatment programs.”

It’s also far from clear that HB 4002, which will be accompanied by an infusion of $211 million in new spending on treatment facilities, diversion options for those arrested, and other supports, will provide immediate relief.

Dr. Alex Kral, an epidemiologist at RTI International who has studied drug use for 30 years, says the research he and others have examined suggests that Oregon’s drug problem is related less to Measure 110 than it is to the emergence of fentanyl. Data shows that fentanyl arrived in Oregon and neighboring states in 2020 and 2021, causing a spike in overdose deaths similar to the one that began in East Coast states six or seven years earlier.

Indeed, the most recent overdose death data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that over the past 12 months ending in September, reported drug overdose deaths in Washington increased faster than they did in Oregon (38.27% versus 32.85%) and that the absolute number of overdose deaths in Washington (3,425) was more than double the number of overdose deaths in Oregon (1,650), far greater than the difference in populations. (The CDC provided two figures: reported overdose deaths and predicted overdose deaths. The latter number attempts to account for incomplete data. By that measure, Oregon’s one-year growth would slightly exceed Washington’s: 41.55% to 41.40%.)

The comparison is noteworthy because Washington never surrendered the law enforcement tools Oregon is now seeking to reinstate. (In February 2021, the Washington Supreme Court struck down felony drug possession laws. The Legislature quickly reinstated criminal penalties, albeit at a lower level and bumped them up in 2023.) Yet Washington’s results are the same as Oregon’s, if not worse.

At a symposium on Measure 110 in January, researchers from across the country presented data showing that 911 calls, arrests and other indicators of drug-related activity in Oregon were similar to the patterns in other Western states. In other words, Kral says, Oregon certainly has a problem, but there’s no evidence that problem is Measure 110.

“The data is very clear that the biggest impact on overdose has been the entry of fentanyl into drug markets,” Kral says. “That swamps everything else, Measure 110 included.”

On the East Coast, the initial spike in fentanyl overdose deaths took years to flatten, which they have now done, but at what Kral calls “ridiculously high rates.” (Oregon’s overdose death rate still trails the hardest-hit states, which include West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.)

Kral cautions that gutting Measure 110 may feel like a victory, but based on what’s happened in other states, it’s unlikely to change the upward trajectory of overdose deaths here anytime soon.

“Unfortunately, I think we can expect see overdose death rates continue to increase regardless of what you do with Measure 110,” Kral says. “It might take a few years for this trend to flatten out.”

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.