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Outrage Erupts in Oregon as Democrats Move to Recriminalize Drugs

Opponents say the move is a reaction to visible homelessness and fearmongering “law and order” narratives in the media.

A syringe drop box stands on the street as a Portland Police officer conducts an investigation into drug dealing and issues a citation for drug possession during a patrol in downtown Portland, Oregon, on January 25, 2024.

For Gloria Ochoa-Sandoval, a racial justice organizer with Unite Oregon, it all started with Fox News arriving in downtown Portland.

The right-wing media obsessed over Portland for months after President Trump railed against the city during the summer of 2020 and deployed the National Guard against some of the nation’s most intense racial justice protests. In a barrage of negative media, pundits and outlets such as Fox News spread misinformation and interviewed angry business owners alongside images of houseless people using drugs. A deep housing crisis is behind a surge in homelessness nationwide, but Portland was singled out and cast as a bastion of left-wing excess.

“I agree that it is a problem, but the problem I see is, these people don’t have homes, they don’t have health resources,” Ochoa-Sandoval told Truthout. “And the first thing people see is the anger that some in Portland have for [houseless people] who are walking on the same sidewalk they want to use.”

Like all major cities, Portland faces real challenges. Skyrocketing housing costs left the city with the fourth-largest population of unhoused people in the nation, increasing the visibility of people struggling with addiction and mental illness without the privacy of a home. Meanwhile, counterfeit pills containing potent fentanyl replaced the traditional heroin supply across much of the Northwest, and the abrupt shift caused a rash of overdose deaths. Ochoa-Sandoval said there are long-term, people-centered solutions available to policy makers, but the powers that be in Portland and beyond are impatient.

Now, three years after voters in Oregon approved a historic ballot measure to decriminalize drugs and invest in addiction treatment, the state is poised to reintroduce criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs despite fierce opposition from racial justice and public health advocates.

Supporters of recriminalization argue the state and its police need more power to force people living with addiction to choose between jail or rehab during a deadly overdose crisis, but opponents and representatives of Oregon’s most vulnerable communities say the move is all about politics and quelling public anger stoked by the media toward houseless people, not saving lives.

“It is a visceral reaction to visible homelessness combined with fearmongering ‘law and order’ narratives,” said Sandy Chung, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oregon, in an interview.

Under pressure from police, wealthy business owners and frustrated voters, the lower chamber of Oregon’s Democrat-controlled legislature passed a bill on Thursday that would once again give law enforcement the option of jailing people living with addiction for carrying small amounts of drugs such as cocaine and illicit opioids.

The legislation effectively repeals the core of Measure 110, the 2020 ballot measure that made Oregon the first state to decriminalize drugs. Currently, police can stop people for drug possession and issue a ticket with a $100 fine that can be waived in return for getting a health assessment with connections to treatment services.

“This has been a concerted attack by business interests who are working in concert with police and prosecutors to negatively paint Measure 110 and decriminalization as the problem,” said Chung, who is part of a coalition pushing to improve Measure 110 rather than undo it.

Lawmakers say they want to pass comprehensive legislation before powerful supporters of recriminalization push a ballot initiative to repeal Measure 110, which polls suggest would have support from voters frustrated by the visibility of the houseless population.

“We wanted to have a treatment-first plan, but we also realized that we needed law enforcement buy-in,” Sen. Kate Lieber, a Democrat from Portland, told Oregon Public Broadcasting this week. “Inaction was not an option.”

Someone charged with small drug possession would have a chance to be released from jail and enter mandatory treatment, and the bill encourage individual counties to set up diversion centers to direct people arrested for drugs toward treatment instead of a jail cell. However, building such “deflection” programs at the county level is optional, and police and criminal courts would have the ultimate authority to decide what to do with people caught with drugs.

If the bill passes the upper chamber and is signed by Gov. Tina Kotek, a Democrat, drug possession for personal use in Oregon would carry a sentence of up to six months in jail if probation is revoked by a judge. Defendants could also enter mandatory addiction treatment instead of serving a jail sentence, but county-level diversion programs still need to be set up and face a shortage of public defenders and treatment providers.

Hundreds of people submitted passionate testimony for and against the bill. While both sides say they are committed to tackling the overdose crisis, research shows that incarcerating people living with addiction for even brief periods of time causes the risk of fatal overdose to skyrocket.

Morgan Godvin, a drug policy advocate in Portland who was incarcerated while living with heroin addiction before Oregon’s decriminalization, said on Thursday that she wept for the people who will be harmed by the restoration of the “system of human suffering and torture that my friends and me experienced.”

“The arrests that will follow when people do not stop using drugs on someone else’s timeline will immediately increase overdose risk, with recently released RTI International research showing that Oregonians who have been incarcerated for any length of time being twice as likely to have overdosed,” Godvin told Truthout.

Facing backlash from racial justice groups and public health experts, supporters for recriminalization in both parties say the legislation is designed to “deflect” people stopped or arrested by police for drugs away from jail and into addiction treatment. However, Chung said the so-called off-ramps to incarceration touted by lawmakers are a mirage.

Oregon simply does not have enough treatment providers to make mandatory rehab available to everyone who is arrested, Chung said, setting the stage for the kind of racial and socioeconomic discrimination that has always resulted from anti-drug enforcement.

“When you give police and prosecutors this much discretion … people with money and connections and racial privilege will get into the treatment spaces, and Black, Brown and low-income people will continue to be incarcerated at the highest rates,” Chung said.

Longtime proponents of recriminalizing drugs — including police, Republican lawmakers and a billionaire-backed lobbying group in Portland — say public drug use is out of control and law enforcement needs more “tools” intervene, namely by confronting drug users with police and forcing them to choose between mandatory treatment and jail time.

Godvin and other advocates say there is an obvious solution to public drug use: safe consumption sites where people can access use drugs inside a safe facility and under medical supervision. Safe consumption sites are proven to prevent overdose deaths and the spread of disease in local areas, but they remain controversial among politicians and exist in a legal grey area in the United States. However, such innovations are not on the table at the Oregon legislature.

Chung said the infrastructure needed for such diversion systems is nowhere near up to scale, and the “deflection” plan arrived in a confusing 137-page amendment that just went public last week. The legislation provides $30 million for the county-level diversion programs that link police to treatment providers, but the system still needs to be set up at a time when demand for treatment in Oregon and across the nation is already overwhelming. The bill contains a total of $211 million for specialty courts and new facilities.

Oregon also faces a shortage of public defenders, who warned lawmakers that they won’t be able to represent all the people arrested for drugs. Judges would be forced to dismiss cases and release people without treatment, or the cases could languish for months, hanging a criminal record over people looking for jobs and housing.

“Those defendants would likely be placed on an unrepresented persons list, and we estimate that their cases would take between 18 to 36 months from the time of their arrest to be resolved,” Jennifer Nash, chair of the Oregon Public Defense Commission, told lawmakers.

Instead, Chung said the houseless and racial minorities will once again be disproportionately targeted by police and, in many cases, cycle in and out of jail without receiving treatment. People struggling with homelessness and addiction may miss court dates and be sentenced to jail time. If a defendant enters treatment but is unable to recover on a court ordered timeline, they could also be jailed and punished by any police officer who find them with drugs.

There is a long-standing debate over the efficacy of court ordered drug treatment, but harm reduction advocates argue forcing people into treatment before they are ready is unethical and dangerous. Research shows that people who receive mandatory treatment and relapse are at serious risk for overdose and death, particularly if they use fentanyl or other opioids. Still, Chung and Ochoa-Sandoval said people who can’t afford legal representation may not get treatment to begin with.

“It’s a bunch of people in government and law enforcement that get to decide if someone gets some form of health treatment, and even afforded the opportunity — which again, this program is not real unless you are lucky, and the people who aren’t lucky are people of color, low-income people and people with health issues,” Ochoa-Sandoval said.

Ochoa-Sandoval said her organization brought dozens of Black and Brown Oregonians with lived experience of being criminalized for drug use to testify against the bill. They pointed to the legislature’s own data showing that the recriminalization bill would result in Black people being arrested at disproportionate rates.

The bill orders law enforcement to collect arrest data so lawmakers can address any racial disparities that arise at a later date, but for the Black and Brown constituents who shared stories of their own lives being torn apart by criminalization, addressing disparities after the fact feels like a slap in the face.

“All the stories that were shared of our personal experience and shared struggles wasn’t sufficient, and even the data they created wasn’t sufficient for them to be alarmed that this would be a problem,” Ochoa-Sandoval said, adding that data alone cannot capture the racial impacts of empowering police to target people for drugs.

The Oregon ACLU urged lawmakers to reinstate a provision that would have required police to direct drug offenders to treatment instead of jail, but Chung said the request was ignored due to the current shortage of providers. Critics also proposed penalties only for drug possession in plain sight to discourage police profiling, and phasing in criminal penalties only after a county has a diversion and treatment program up and running. None of the compromise measures were included in the final legislation.

Chung said advocates are pressing the governor to listen to drug policy experts and veto the bill, but with recriminalization supporters threatening to put the issue back to voters in November, Democrats in Oregon appear to be plowing ahead.

“This is deeply, deeply flawed policy,” Chung said. “You don’t pass deeply flawed policy that will harm our citizens and our state. That is wrong.”

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