Oregon Set to Recriminalize Drugs, Return to Failed Approach of Arresting, Jailing People for Possession

Press Release March 1, 2024
Media Contact

Brian Pacheco [email protected]

Salem, OR  – Today, the Oregon Senate voted to pass House Bill (HB) 4002, which recriminalizes drug possession and doubles down on the failed approach of arresting and jailing people for drug possession. The bill is a disappointing setback for the hard-won progress achieved through Measure 110 — the state’s pioneering drug decriminalization law overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2020. It is also a false bill of goods: people struggling with drug use will go to jail and not get treatment. Lawmakers passed HB 4002 after Oregonians demonstrated widespread opposition to the legislation’s recriminalization of drugs as a response to public suffering. Now it’s expected to move on to Gov. Tina Kotek, who said she will sign it into law.

“Today, politicians blamed an innovative policy in its infancy for decades of their own ineffectiveness,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “The fact is that drug decriminalization worked to reduce the harms of criminalization. It is Oregon leaders that didn’t work. Their chronic underfunding of affordable housing, effective addiction services and accessible health care are to blame for the heartbreaking public suffering seen in Oregon’s streets. And there is not a shred of evidence supporting claims that Measure 110 increased homelessness, overdose or crime rates. Recriminalizing drugs is a false promise of change to distract from politicians’ incompetence as they approach reelection.”

As demonstrated in a recent ProPublica investigation, Oregon government agencies were negligent in implementing Measure 110 as the law was initially designed and passed by voters, allowing opponents to falsely claim it as a failure, and paving the way for drugs to be recriminalized. To support this tactic, proponents of HB 4002 promoted inaccurate and misleading claims connecting decriminalization with increased overdose rates within the state.

“Today, HB 4002 is being touted as a compromise, but we ask at the cost to whom? It is an unacceptable compromise when we know that there will be disparate impacts to Oregonians of color. It is not enough to monitor the system when we know it is a system that has bias built into it. I fear that we will be back next year, hearing those stories of harm, figuring out how to make our communities whole,” said Jennifer Parrish Taylor, director of advocacy and public policy of the Urban League of Portland.

Despite the poor and slow implementation, Measure 110 made strides in what it intended to do by dramatically reducing the harms of criminalization by limiting arrests, criminal records and the barriers to jobs and housing that come with those records; and increasing access to and engagement with lifesaving services. Even proponents of HB 4002 acknowledge that the measure was successful in these ways, as the bill specifically stipulates that services only made possible by Measure 110 will remain in place, and with good reason. Measure 110 resulted in over $300 million to expand addiction services in its first two years alone, resulting in dramatic increases in the number of clients accessing  the addiction services and social supports they need, including substance use disorder treatment, housing services and overdose prevention services.

HB 4002 abandons the goal of a public health approach to drug use and addiction in Oregon by treating it as a crime. Under the bill, possession of small amounts of controlled substances is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. Because nearly everyone who receives the new charge will require a public defender, Oregon judges warned the bill will further overburden public defender caseloads at a time when people are already being released due to lack of counsel. The most common result of this bill will likely be that police arrest primarily Black and Indigenous people for drug possession, the court dismisses their charges due to lack of counsel, and people return to the street after experiencing a major life disruption and without any services or treatment.

“Criminalization will not solve the issues on the street because it does not address why people are homeless and unsheltered,” Frederique said. “Many people cycle in and out of jail, ending up back on the street after an arrest without meaningful connection to support or care. Criminalization also increases overdose risk, increases racial disparities in the criminal legal system, disrupts treatment for those who seek it and saddles people with criminal records that will serve as barriers to jobs, housing and other services for the rest of their lives. Criminalization has long played a contributing role to what we are experiencing on the streets in the past and today. We cannot arrest or punish our way out of this problem, and we can’t leave people to suffer on the streets. State leaders need to focus on providing more resources for the services and supports that Oregon communities desperately need, not returning to failed drug war approaches.”

“Criminalizing people for addiction will never be an effective pathway to recovery,” said Dr. Kimberly Sue, assistant professor of Medicine and Public Health at Yale University School of Medicine. “Effective solutions treat addiction like the public health issue it is by offering a wide range of accessible voluntary care that connects people to the services they need – that’s what Measure 110 did. We can’t reverse engineer prisons into treatment centers or police into health care providers, nor should we try. To truly heal communities, people need care, not handcuffs.”

“As a career law enforcement professional, I know that relying on police to address drug use is a losing battle,” said Lt. Diane Goldstein (Ret.), executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP). “This bill relies on police officers in Oregon to solve the homelessness crisis. That is not their job, nor are they equipped or qualified to do it. Police are already overwhelmed and overstretched. More police isn’t the answer. We need to connect people to the care they need, and the first step toward making that happen is decriminalization.”

“Oregon groups that represent Black, brown, low-income, immigrant and refugee, and rural communities repeatedly attempted to engage with state leaders – reminding them that recriminalizing drug possession will inflict unconscionable government harm and violence on our historically-marginalized neighbors. Thousands of Oregonians sent messages to lawmakers opposing recriminalization. We were largely ignored. This bill is about law-and-order political theater and lawmakers bowing down to the pressure tactics of a billionaire-backed interest group led by a former prison chief and current prosecutor. It is not data-driven, solutions-oriented policy. Sadly, the goal is not about creating healing and thriving communities,” said Sandy Chung, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.

To understand what really happened in Oregon and with Measure 110, click here.

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About the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA)

The Drug Policy Alliance is the leading organization in the U.S. working to end the drug war, repair its harms and build a non-punitive, equitable and regulated drug market. We envision a world that embraces the full humanity of people, regardless of their relationship to drugs. We advocate that the regulation of drugs be grounded in evidence, health, equity and human rights. In collaboration with other movements and at every policy level, we change laws, advance justice and save lives. Learn more at drugpolicy.org.

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