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Drug use comes with few penalties in Oregon

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Medford police officers Jenny Newell and RJ Josephson log activity at a homeless camp off the Bear Creek Greenway in Medford.
Measure 110 weakens law enforcement tools

Word is out on the streets — and even beyond Oregon’s borders — that the state has essentially decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs such as heroin, meth and cocaine.

After voters approved Measure 110 in November 2020, police started handing out $100 tickets in 2021 for drug possession instead of arresting people. The measure’s goal was to divert people from jail and encourage addiction treatment.

The Medford Police Department’s Livability Team regularly visits areas along the Bear Creek Greenway, a path troubled with illegal camping by homeless people, drug use and criminal activity.

“The Livability Team working the greenway this summer would frequently make contact with people from out of the state coming here. They would say, ‘We know we can’t get arrested now.’ The word had even traveled out of state that Oregon is kind of a free zone,” Medford police Chief Scott Clauson said in an interview before his recent retirement.

Some police agencies in Oregon aren’t bothering to ticket people for drug possession, but Medford police are handing out the $100 tickets. They also give out a card that lists a state hotline, Clauson said.

People who call and answer screening questions can get the fine waived. They can also get referred to drug treatment.

“We don’t want to turn the other way. This gives people the opportunity to reach out to the recovery hotline. I believe the citation helps encourage people to do that. Other agencies feel it’s a complete waste of time and are not doing it. That’s one tool we want to use to get people into services,” Clauson said.

He said he has been disappointed to hear that very few people are calling the hotline.

“What’s been unfortunate is the law went into effect and there’s been this lag of trying to figure out what to do. The call center concept has not been super successful,” Clauson said.

The decriminalization element went into effect in early 2021. Oregon released an initial round of $33 million to fund support services for people facing addiction, but won’t start releasing a massive pot of $270 million until this year.

Clauson said he hopes Measure 110 is successful over time. But for now, it’s taken away the criminal justice system intervention that gave some people the push to change their lives.

“I’ve heard many times throughout my 27-year career from individuals who say, ‘The judge’s sanction on me made me think about where I was going in life.’ That tool has been taken away,” he said. “A judge can no longer sanction someone into recovery services. That was something that was actually working.”

Over the years, Oregon has downgraded possession of user amounts of drugs such as heroin and meth from a felony to a misdemeanor and now, with Measure 110, a noncriminal violation that costs less than a speeding ticket.

Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert said local drug courts haven’t seen much impact from Measure 110. Drug courts and accompanying addiction treatment are generally used to divert people who face prison sentences because they’ve committed property crimes while addicted.

Heckert said she’s concerned that with so few consequences now for drug possession, people could spiral deeper into addiction. The criminal justice system can only intervene if users descend into drug dealing and theft. It’s too early to see whether that’s happening more often under Measure 110, she said.

Heckert said Oregon will have a hard time tracking whether Measure 110 draws more drug dealers to the state or paves the way for users to become dealers. Prosecuting drug dealing is now much harder.

In 2021, the Oregon Supreme Court reversed decades of case law that allowed prosecutors to charge people with delivery of drugs if they possessed amounts far larger than a single person could use. Even catching people with large quantities of drugs plus weighing scales and baggies for dividing drugs for customers might not be enough, Heckert said.

Police now have to catch a dealer in the act of delivering drugs, or at least find something like phone records to show a dealer set up a sale, she said.

Support services not yet in place

Jackson County Community Justice Director Eric Guyer said the criminal justice system may not have been the best tool for intervening in the lives of everyone facing addiction, but that tool has been pulled away before other support services have had time to build up.

“For a lot of people, the criminal justice system has provided life-saving interventions when they really needed it. It’s provided stop signs. It’s provided access to services,” he said.

Jackson County Community Justice runs probation, a transition center that provides housing, community service work crews and other services. The department focuses on providing accountability, while also connecting people to the care they need to improve their lives.

People can talk to peer mentors, find jobs, access drug treatment, take medication to ease drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms, and sign up for the Oregon Health Plan to get physical and mental health care.

When it comes to factors that encourage drug use, drug trafficking and related crimes, Guyer said, Southern Oregon is facing a perfect storm.

The changes wrought by Measure 110 are colliding with the rampant spread of illegal marijuana growing, processing and storage sites in Southern Oregon. Marijuana is legal at the state level, and hemp — marijuana’s lookalike, nonintoxicating cousin — is legal at the state and federal levels. Many people are evading regulations and taxes by growing and selling marijuana illegally.

In 2021, police raided grows and storage sites in Southern Oregon that together had more than $1 billion worth of illegal marijuana, much of it meant for illegal out-of-state drug trafficking. Police believe they only scratched the surface.

“Measure 110, coupled with commercial cannabis, has created a marketplace for illegal activity in our community that’s continuing to harm people who are suffering from substance use disorder — as well as other marginalized communities in our county and Southern Oregon,” Guyer said.

The COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires that destroyed thousands of homes in Jackson County in 2020 are only adding to the burden on people who live on the edge, he said.

Guyer said local organizations that help people are responding heroically to the challenges. But he doesn’t see a cohesive plan from the state about how Measure 110 money will be spent and what other funding sources could shore up services.

“Locally, our system is as connected and as collaborative as it’s ever been. Our providers are taking an all-hands-on-deck approach and showing up in the midst of this crisis,” Guyer said. “I don’t think the state has communicated what all of the funding sources are and how all of the funding sources are being utilized.”

Work lies ahead

State Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, who represents southern Jackson County, said the Oregon Legislature will be looking at ways to boost addiction treatment funding when it convenes in February.

While initial Measure 110 funding went to support services in the county such as housing and distributing overdose antidote kits, Oregon is leery of paying for addiction treatment directly with Measure 110 money.

The measure uses state marijuana tax revenue to pay for services. But because marijuana is federally illegal, Oregon fears funding addiction treatment directly would jeopardize federal money that helps pay for treatment through the Oregon Health Plan.

Marsh said she hopes the Legislature will find other money to raise pay for addiction treatment workers while it works on a longer-term strategy to shore up the underfunded field.

Oregon is expected to get $329 million from a multistate $26 billion settlement with companies that sold and distributed addictive opioid pain pills. Overuse fueled a wave of addiction and overdose deaths across America. Some of that money could go toward treatment.

With Measure 110 paying for support services, and other sources of money boosting addiction treatment, Oregon could finally have a full set of tools to help people facing addiction.

Experts estimate substance abuse costs Oregon more than $6 billion annually in the form of lost earnings, crime, medical costs and other burdens.

Marsh worked in the past for the addiction treatment provider OnTrack Rogue Valley. She said the experience was eye-opening. People battling addiction often have to upend their lives — finding new housing and leaving behind friends and family who use drugs and alcohol.

“You don’t get successful treatment by popping a person in a treatment group. They have to rebuild their whole life. I saw it firsthand. It’s the variety of support services that make treatment work,” she said.

Meanwhile, the state Measure 110 Oversight and Accountability Council has been sifting through grant applications from organizations hoping for a share of $270 million that will start going out this year for services. The measure gives the council authority to decide how the money is spent.

The council distributed $33 million in early grants in 2021. A state summary of the results of the spending shows 7,398 new Oregonians were helped.

The majority of those, 55.8%, accessed harm-reduction services like overdose antidote kits and new, clean needles to reduce the spread of disease when they inject drugs. Another 29.2% got help with housing, and 10.4% talked to peer support mentors.

Only 0.3% of people entered addiction treatment, and only 0.5% obtained health insurance like the Oregon Health Plan that can help pay for treatment, the data shows.

The data may have some flaws because the state didn’t ask organizations that got grants to report outcomes in a standardized way, Oregon officials acknowledged.

The marijuana tax revenue that is funding hundreds of millions of dollars in Measure 110 spending in 2021, 2022 and beyond is being diverted from schools, police and other services.

The Measure 110 Oversight and Accountability Council is made up of Oregon residents, many of whom have beaten addiction and spent years helping others who use drugs and alcohol.

Council member Henri Shields-Lucero is a private therapist who now lives in Northern Oregon. He went to Ashland High School and worked for OnTrack Rogue Valley and the local La Clinica health care network.

He said the Oregon Legislature needs to find more ways to recruit, train and boost pay for addiction treatment workers.

Shields-Lucero said there is sometimes a false narrative that traditional treatment and harm-reduction strategies represent opposite approaches.

Harm reduction is a key goal for some Measure 110 oversight council members.

“Harm reduction can engage clients who may be uncertain about engaging in treatment. People may be ambivalent. That’s part of the treatment process,” said Shields-Lucero, who favors a multi-pronged approach.

He said he voted against Measure 110, but he’s committed as a council member to try and get people the help they need. He’s in long-term recovery himself from addiction and said he now has a great life.

“I feel like I owe it all to my own experience of recovery. I want to help as many Oregonians find a path out of addiction as possible,” he said.

Shields-Lucero said the rollout of Measure 110 services can seem painfully slow, especially as an unprecedented number of Americans die from overdose deaths. His own family was devastated after a relative died of an overdose. He said most people have a friend or family member who struggles with addiction.

“I would ask for patience with the process. I believe it’s going to have a positive effect for Oregonians struggling with the disease of addiction. It will open up new ways of accessing care,” he said.

This article is part three of a three-part series. To read part one, “Oregon’s drug decriminalization measure fails to fund treatment,” see www.mailtribune.com/top-stories/2022/01/07/oregons-drug-decriminalization-measure-fails-to-fund-treatment/.

To read part two, “Oregon offers different paths to addiction recovery,” see www.mailtribune.com/top-stories/2022/01/07/oregon-offers-different-paths-to-addiction-recovery/.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.