Lawmakers Wrestle with Police Role in Drug Addiction Crisis

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Rep. Greg Smith (R-Heppner), left, and other members of the members of the Joint Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response listen to testimony about drug overdoses on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

By Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle

From Portland to Albany, and from urban cities to the rural regions, Oregonians agree that the Legislature must take action to stem the state’s fentanyl-fueled rise in addiction and lethal overdoses, which kill hundreds of people every year.

But they widely disagree about what path the state should take, whether to enact misdemeanor criminal charges and how people would enter into treatment and make more options available.

For nearly four hours on Wednesday, legislators on the Joint Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response listened as people shared their stories and pressed for urgent action.

Many had heart-wrenching stories. A mother who lost her 25-year-old son to an overdose. A mayor’s 21-year-old goddaughter died, and a Portland police officer, spilling tears at the hearing, had watched as a 15-year-old boy died from a fentanyl overdose after not responding to emergency responders.

Dozens of people who testified in person and online pleaded with lawmakers not to return to criminal penalties and potential jail time – even when used as a means to encourage people to enter treatment.

But Republican lawmakers, who pitched their proposals, urged their Democratic colleagues who control both chambers to consider stricter misdemeanor charges for drug possession, among other differences.

“We’ve all identified the problem,” Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton and a co-chair of the committee, said. “Finding the solutions, I think, are difficult in this situation. But we’re tasked as the Legislature to do just that. And I’m going to reiterate, there is not one solution that is going to fix the drug crisis  immediately.”

Here’s a look at the proposals, some key differences, and what Oregonians are telling lawmakers:

Democratic proposal

Measure 110, which voters passed in 2020, decriminalized possession of small amounts of hard drugs and put a share of cannabis revenue into addiction services and programs. Instead of misdemeanor charges, the law put in place $110 citations that police say haven’t encouraged people to seek help.

The measure expanded services. Both sides agree that Oregon needs even greater access to treatment, have tougher penalties for drug dealers and increase prevention efforts.

Under House Bill 4002, Democratic lawmakers want to enact a class C misdemeanor that carries up to 30 days in jail. But someone could avoid the charge if they complete a diversion program, which includes a screening and showing up for at least one more follow-up appointment.

Their proposal has other parts too, like expanding recovery housing and expanding the welfare hold from 48 hours to 72 hours that allows authorities to hold an intoxicated person in a treatment or sobering center.

In the hearing, critics focused heavily on reinstating criminal penalties.

Julia Maria Delgado, vice president of the Urban League of Portland, said Oregon has high public drug use because of its “unacceptable rates of homelessness.”

Lawmakers are targeting people in poverty whose private suffering is in public view,” she said. “People living in poverty, a group within which Black Oregonians have been overrepresented for decades, are most vulnerable to the revolving door of despair and harm that the government brings from over-policing and arresting people with addictions.”

Grant Hartley, director of the Multnomah County office for Metropolitan Public Defender, told lawmakers that police already have the ability to confront users and drug dealers. Even with the current citation system, he said, officers can confiscate drugs and refer people to treatment. He said police want the “ability to get into people’s pockets, in their cars by claiming that they have probable cause.”

Hartley cautioned, however, that this would perpetuate a long-standing inequity that is unfair to marginalized communities.

“Let’s proceed with open eyes,” he said. “The tool being given to law enforcement is the ability to continue decades and decades of using the war on drugs as an excuse to profile minorities and those in poverty.

Republican proposals

House Republicans are supporting an alternative bill, House Bill 4036, which would make drug possession a class A misdemeanor, carrying a penalty of up to a year in jail, a $6,250 fine or both.

Under the bill, the person charged or convicted would have an assessment, and if they needed it, they would enter mandatory drug treatment.

They also could enter treatment and go on probation with a conditional discharge agreement to avoid jail. They could ask for a court order for the conviction to be expunged after the successful completion of probation.

Their measure would set up a grant program through the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission so cities and counties could set up opioid rapid response teams to help people. There would be tougher penalties for people who deal and manufacture illegal drugs.

“HB 4036 will get the drugs off the street, addicts into treatment, and our state on the path to healing,” House Minority Leader Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, said. “This is what the people of Oregon have demanded. I am imploring my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to work with us.”

Rep. Rick Lewis, R-Silverton, said a first offense would open the door for the person to get into a program and then get the charge dismissed after they complete it.

“Remember, the goal is to get people clean,” Lewis said.

Sen. David Brock-Smith, R-Port Orford, echoed that as he presented the Senate Republicans’ proposal, Senate Bill 1555. The measure, backed by Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, is similar to the House Republican proposal.

He also pointed out another aspect of the bill: It would create a system to fund counties to set up programs and services that would be less expensive than if it came from the Oregon Health Authority.

“By having those dollars go directly to the counties … you’ll have more of them because OHA won’t be taking their cut for administrative services,” he said.

Albany Mayor Alexander Johnson II told lawmakers he supports both proposals, as they would provide the accountability necessary so providers and public safety officers can successfully address addiction.

He shared a personal story. He had a goddaughter who died of a fentanyl overdose in 2021. The person who supplied the fentanyl was arrested and is in prison, he said.

“But for me, it’s not enough,” he said. “A 21-year-old life was snuffed out by a pill. As far as my community is concerned, I wake up every morning thinking I hope a 5-year-old doesn’t find a stash of fentanyl.”

Michele Stroh, of Oregon City, talked about the loss of her 25-year-old son Keaton when he ingested a fentanyl-contaminated pill in 2020.

“He never stood a chance against this powerful deadly enemy,” Stroh said. “How many more kids like Keaton have to die before those of you with the power, the money and the responsibility to fix Measure 110 take bold action.”

She said a 30-day jail sentence is not enough, and encouraged lawmakers to expand treatment centers.

If Republicans don’t succeed in the statehouse, they will turn to the ballot box in November. The Coalition to Fix & Improve Measure 110 wants to put the changes on the ballot in November.

Max Williams, a former Republican state lawmaker and the public face of the coalition, encouraged Democratic lawmakers to support the alternative proposals. He said they are simpler, more straightforward and fairer to communities with less resources.

“Mandating treatment options is for those who can’t make the rational decision for treatment,” he said in submitted testimony. “We need to act to protect them, their families, and the community. Leaving them on the streets amid their addiction is inhumane.”

This story first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

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