Oregon lawmakers will hear from law enforcement officials on Monday about the drug addiction crisis, as the Legislature’s new committee meets for the second time. 

The Joint Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response is tasked with coming up with proposals for the 2024 session that will guide the state’s response to the drug addiction and overdose crisis, much of it driven by fentanyl that has flooded Oregon streets.

Lawmakers are considering changes to Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of hard drugs, except for fentanyl, and put a share of cannabis revenue into addiction programs and treatment. But even as millions of dollars have been distributed for treatment, peer services and harm reduction, officials and the public have grown alarmed about open drug use in public places, whether Portland or smaller communities like Grants Pass. 

On Monday, police officials who work in Portland, Salem, Lincoln County and Hermiston will talk to lawmakers. Officials from Oregon State Police and the Oregon District Attorneys Association will also speak.

The drug addiction crisis is one that needs a response that includes public health and law enforcement, said Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend and co-chair of the committee.

“It’s illegal to sell drugs in the state, and we need to make sure prosecutors have the tools to do that,” Kropf, a former deputy district attorney in Deschutes County, said in an interview with the Capital Chronicle. 

The committee’s work follows the 2021 Oregon Supreme Court decision of State v. Hubbell, which made it harder to prosecute dealers. In that case, the court ruled that simply possessing large amounts of illegal drugs isn’t enough to prove the owner intended to purchase drugs. 

Law enforcement often responds when someone is in a drug addiction crisis, and one of the key questions is how  to help people receive treatment and move towards stability, he said. 

At the same time, open air drug use is not acceptable and people need treatment, Kropft said. 

“I don’t think you’re simply going to arrest your way out of this crisis,” he said. 

Another committee member, Rep. Kevin Mannix, R-Keizer, said the state needs to give police the ability to arrest people – and provide treatment. Mannix said the decriminalization of street drugs was a “tremendous mistake.”

“We need to return to criminal enforcement as to street drugs, so that we have the power to press those who are addicts into treatment,” Mannix told the Capital Chronicle. “Right now there is no real power to do so.”

Under Measure 110, which voters passed in 2020, police can write a $100 citation to someone who has a small amount of drugs and they can opt for treatment to avoid the fee. But drug users often ignore the citations. 

“We should take the handcuffs off,” Mannix said. “When an officer sees someone shooting up heroin next to a playground in a public park, the officers should be able to remove that person from the scene by saying, ‘I’m arresting you and I’m either taking you in to a drug rehab program, or I’m taking you to jail, but I’m not leaving you here and giving you $100 citation. Under the current law, all they can do is hand out a citation.”

Law enforcement, cities urge action 

On Thursday, a coalition of Oregon cities, prosecutors and law enforcement agencies sent a letter to state lawmakers urging a variety of changes to address the overdose crisis.

Those include changes to Measure 110 and other changes. For example, the proposal recommends that lawmakers eliminate the $100 citations for drug possession and make them a misdemeanor, which carries more weight and can compel people in addiction to enter treatment without incarceration.

“As your partners in public safety, we believe that Ballot Measure 110 failed to recognize that drug addiction is both a public health and public safety crisis and requires solutions on both sides of the ledger,” said the letter.

The League of Oregon Cities, Oregon District Attorneys Association, Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police and Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association signed onto the letter.

The group wants public drug use to be a misdemeanor – or a felony for repeated violations. That’s similar to a ballot initiative backed by Nike co-founder Phil Knight and others which would make treatment mandatory. 

The group also recommends that lawmakers fix the outcome of the Hubbell case, making the law clear that large quantities of drugs and other evidence is enough to charge drug dealers with intent to deliver.

On the treatment side, the group recommends more funding for Oregon specialty courts that hold offenders accountable through addiction treatment programs. They want to give law enforcement and first responders the authority to put an intoxicated person on a welfare hold for 72 hours, which means putting them in a treatment facility for that time and then give them the option to leave or get treatment.

The group is calling on lawmakers to create sobering centers and stabilization facilities. These facilities allow people to detoxify and manage their withdrawal systems before they engage in a treatment program. 

The goal of the proposals is to provide people in a crisis with multiple exits to get treatment without incarceration, said Scott Winkels, a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities, which represents all of Oregon’s 241 incorporated cities.

“Every entry into the criminal justice system comes with an exit,” Winkels said. “So just because an officer sees somebody consuming a narcotic on the street doesn’t mean that’s going to lead to an arrest.”

The preferred option would be a detox hold that connects the person to treatment, he said, adding that the goal is to help people get healthier.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report.