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Finding Common Ground on Measure 110

Written by George Plaven on Jan. 9th, 2024
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Oregon lawmakers will be seeking solutions to fix the state’s controversial voter-approved drug decriminalization law when they convene for the upcoming short legislative session on Feb. 5.

The question is whether there is enough common ground to address the law’s shortcomings. Legislators’ goal will be striking a balance between draconian punishments for drug addiction in the past that spurred passage of Measure 110 in 2020, while providing enough motivation to push drug users into treatment.

Measure 110 removed criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of certain street drugs, including methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine. Instead, those cited for drug possession are given a choice between calling a statewide abuse treatment hotline or paying a $100 fine. 

“The passage of Measure 110 has created serious safety issues in our community, with people doing drugs and other things in public that were never OK and it just blows my mind,” said Salem City Councilor Julie Hoy.

The law also used tax revenue from cannabis sales to boost funding for treatment services statewide, establishing regional Behavioral Health Resource Networks, or BHRNs.

The original vision of Measure 110 was to create a new approach to fighting the war on drugs, replacing arrests and criminal records with stronger and more accessible support systems. 

Three years later, polling shows that 56% of Oregonians support a total repeal of Measure 110 and 64% say they support repealing parts of the law. A group of influential business and political leaders is now leading an initiative to change the law. 

“The measure itself is falling short across the board,” said Marion County Commissioner Danielle Bethell. “It was a measure with good intentions that put the cart before the horse.” 

Specifically, Bethell — who has been a strong critic of Measure 110 — said decriminalization was implemented before there were enough fully funded and staffed treatment facilities to help those in need.

Secondly, Bethell said the law eliminated incentives to seek treatment that had been enforced through the justice system or local drug courts. The result, she said, is more people are being left to suffer on the streets.

“I believe that people are now seeing the ramifications of just legalizing drugs,” Bethell said. “You see that there are people living in a lifestyle that is not dignified. It is not safe or healthy for them, or the people around them.”

In conversations with other city and county leaders, Bethell said they all agree that change needs to come from the Legislature. 

A joint interim committee on addiction and community safety response, co-chaired by Sen. Kate Lieber (D-Beaverton) and Rep. Jason Kropf (D-Bend) is crafting a proposal to resolve Measure 110’s flaws during the upcoming short session.  The committee held a hearing in December where members of the public aired their grievances with the current system.

In a statement, Kropf said he believes there are common goals and values to reach sustainable, evidence-based solutions.

“The main purpose of the Joint Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response is to help our state break down silos between our systems of public health and public safety,” Kropf said. “We need to ensure that we have an effective and accessible treatment infrastructure that meets people where they are, and we also need to ensure law enforcement has the necessary tools to keep our communities safe and stop people who profit off the addiction of others.” 

Rep. Paul Evans (D-Monmouth), co-chairman of the Joint Subcommittee on Public Safety, pointed to halting public drug use as one area of consensus among legislators.

“There is consensus that full decriminalizing went too far, and that some form of recriminalization is needed to perform basic public safety functions,” Evans said. 

The Marion County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously in August to support repealing Measure 110. The League of Oregon Cities, Oregon District Attorneys Association, Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association and Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police all signed on to a list of 11 policy recommendations for the Legislature to consider.

These include reclassifying drug possession from a Class E violation to a Class A misdemeanor, focused on diverting offenders into treatment programs that, if successfully completed, would result in the charge being dismissed. 

Another recommendation would be to create a new Class A misdemeanor for public drug use — like existing laws that ban public consumption of alcohol or marijuana. 

Still other proposals on the list focus on funding for treatment. 

Funding should be prioritized to save specialty courts at risk of discontinuing their operations, the groups say, as well as to increase capacity for drug detox and treatment facilities. 

They also call for Oregon to establish “Opioid Overdose Quick Response Teams” that can respond within 72 hours to overdoses and administer Naloxone. This model, they say, has worked previously in Ohio.

Bethell said she hopes legislators will listen to their suggestions and concerns.

“There has to be an understanding at the state level,” she said. “They need to take action in order for positive outcomes to come about.” 

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