Drug Abuse in Oregon Skyrockets After Decriminalization
Drug overdose deaths in the state of Oregon have increased by more than 40% since November of 2020, when residents voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs including cocaine, meth, heroin, and fentanyl.
Measure 110 made possession of these drugs no more than a Class E violation (similar to a speeding ticket) punishable by a fine of up to $100, though violators can avoid fines if they seek help from an addiction hotline and complete a health assessment.
Unfortunately few if any who call such hotlines are actually enrolled in rehab programs. According to Oregon’s Lund Report, fewer than 1% of offenders who sought help from a hotline actually entered treatment programs.
“It is predictable, was predicted and now, unfortunately, is coming to pass in front of our eyes,” says David Murray, an opponent of Measure 110 who serves as co-director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Substance Abuse Policy Research. “It is a tragedy and a self-inflicted wound.”
As reported by Oregon’s Judicial Department, police issued roughly 2,500 tickets for drug possession between November of 2020 and May of 2022. Up to 75% of these tickets resulted in conviction – in most cases simply because the offender failed to appear in court.
Mike Marshall, Oregon resident and director of advocacy group Oregon Recovers, describes Measure 110 as “putting the cart before the horse.” Fewer people are being arrested on drug charges, sure, but there have been no real improvements in access to treatment.
Measure 110 directed $270 million towards “addiction recovery services,” but little of that sum has actually been used. The 10% that has been handed out has gone towards “harm reduction” programs like Naloxone distribution and needle exchanges. The rest of the money remains in the bank and no action has been taken to expand addiction recovery services or residential treatment capacity, argues Marshall.
“Measure 110 was never intended to solve the addiction crisis…It was intended to end the war on drugs and fund recovery, but it was never going to deal with the challenge of access to treatment,” laments Marshall, who insists that a single individual must be put in charge of coordinating the state’s efforts to reduce addiction and improve access to recovery to progress to be made.
“Many Oregonians and lawmakers believe that Measure 110 funding will help address the addiction crisis by expanding access to treatment,” he continues. “But Measure 110 funding cannot be used for prevention, nor will it fund any new treatment beds.”
According to the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Oregon ranks second-highest in the nation for substance abuse with nearly 20% of adult residents reporting drug addiction. In 2020, Oregon ranked dead last in terms of access to treatment for drug addiction.
In 2018, when Oregon Governor Kate Brown (D) declared addiction a public health crisis, the state was spending less than 1% of its budget on prevention methods.
The coronavirus pandemic further impacted the state’s ability to offer help to addicts as residential treatment facilities were forced to cut capacity and/or divert resources towards making protective gear. Compared to pre-COVID figures, the total number of adult and youth residential treatment beds available is down 40% and 60%, respectively.
“The pandemic has really hurt a number of programs,” argues Reginald Richardson Sr., director of Oregon’s Drug and Alcohol Policy Commission. “We only have one adolescent program left in the state.”
Alcoholism has also increased in Oregon over the past years, nearly doubling in 2020 when residents were trapped inside due to COVID lockdowns. Alcohol-related deaths are up by more than 70% and roughly 12% of Oregon residents ages 12 and older admit they have problems with alcohol.
Alcohol abuse was further exacerbated by COVID policies that allowed alcoholic beverages “to-go” and dramatically increased the availability of packaged beer and kegs, notes Marshall.
Simultaneous with the rise drug and alcohol abuse is an uptick in petty theft, violence between gangs, and other crimes.
“What we’re absolutely seeing is that as drug possession has been decriminalized, property crimes have increased and so has violent crime,” says Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton. In 2021, the city of Portland reached an all-time high for murders with 90 people being killed.
Author’s Note: Oregon lawmakers don’t seem to realize the power of addiction and the power of addicts to recruit new users – especially children. Of course easing restrictions on drugs is going to result in more abuse. This is a tragedy.