Alanna Mayham

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Lawmakers hoping to alleviate Oregon’s ongoing drug crises are closer than ever to repealing a state ballot measure that decriminalized small quantities of hard drugs after an Oregon legislative committee voted Tuesday to advance House Bill 4002.

The bill came through Oregon’s Democrat-led Joint Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response as a push back on 2020's Measure 110 — which reduced penalties for small drug quantities from a felony or misdemeanor to a citation with a maximum $100 fine. The measure also allowed ticketed individuals to avoid charges if they attended a treatment screening within 45 days of their citation without punishment for skipping court or treatment screenings, which most people did.

The bill that passed through the committee Tuesday night reflects a bipartisan compromise that would make small drug possession an unclassified misdemeanor with a jail sentence up to six months. It also requires the conviction of anyone who sells a controlled substance near a public park, temporary residence shelter or treatment center while encouraging counties to establish a drug treatment deferment program instead of placing people in jails.

“We heard from law enforcement repeatedly that they wanted the tools to be able to intervene and confiscate drugs in our community, but they did not want to take people to jail,” said state representative Jason Kropf, a Democrat from Bend. “We heard that uniformly from law enforcement. We are providing a framework to make that a reality.”

However, opponents of the bill say its amendments are bound to harm Oregonians facing drug addiction, particularly since the optional deferment programs it relies on are not mandatory or readily available.

Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Feb.15 indicates that Oregon’s predicted drug overdose death counts rose 42% between September 2022 and September 2023. An Oregon Health Authority-commissioned draft report also highlighted how Oregon’s current residential bed capacity for treating substance use disorder topped at 1,606 and that it only plans to add 44 more beds by 2025.

Critics of Measure 110 have been quick to blame the law for Oregon’s crime rates, homeless populations and surging drug-related overdoses and deaths — even though the CDC’s recent data shows comparable increases in drug-related deaths in nearby states like Washington and Nevada that punish all drug possession with imprisonment and fines. Before the CDC report, proponents of Measure 110 jumped to cite a 2023 study indicating no correlation between the measure and the state’s overdose rates.

On Monday, the committee heard over three hours of testimonies from state residents who largely opposed recriminalization for the disproportionate impacts it’s expected to have on people of color and Oregon’s ongoing shortage of public defenders.

Those who supported the bill’s provisions, however, often cited how easy access to opioids has made it difficult for people to stay clean and that the lack of consequences enables addiction instead of encouraging treatment.

Some specifically supported the bill’s expansion of opioid use disorder treatment in correctional facilities. A 2023 study — led by addiction medicine physician Dan Hoover at Oregon Health and Science University — found that jails in the U.S. have limited access to opioid use disorder medications.

Hoover explained that his biggest recommendation from that study was to ensure that addiction is treated in jails, especially rural ones.

“We have multiple reasons why, as a country, we haven't really emphasized that in jails. One reason being that jails don't bill health insurance,” Hoover said in an interview. “And so, any kind of specific medical care that I think someone should receive in jail, like care for their addiction or medication for their opioid use disorder specifically, that's an extra expense and maybe extra staffing that the jail has to supply.”

Another obstacle to providing drug treatment in jails is stigma, Hoover said, which leads to the perspective that forcing someone to deal with their addiction untreated in jail will deter them from using drugs again.

“But often it just deters them from engaging in evidence-based treatments or they're more just trapped in a cycle of their untreated addiction,” Hoover said. “And we're really missing the opportunity in jails across the country is what I'm concerned about.”

Hoover also noted that jails also contributed to patient overdose post-release and mentioned that people have a lower risk of overdose after they leave jail or prison if they’re started on medications that treat opioid use disorder.

In a video published by Health Justice Recovery Alliance — an organization that opposes recriminalization — Moxie Loeffler, Oregon Medical Director at Community Medical Services and the public policy chair of Oregon Society of Addiction Medicine, explained that punishing people for their addiction has not worked and leaves people worse off when they are released.

“If we want public health and safety, we need to guarantee Oregonians addiction treatment when they’re ready,” Loeffler said in the video.