Advocates push back on legislative efforts to recriminalize drug possession
Monday, February 5, 2024
As the Oregon legislative session opens, lawmakers could make changes to a voter-passed measure that decriminalized small amounts of drugs and opened up more access to treatment.
Backers of the measure say it's a move in the wrong direction.
Oregon voters passed Measure 110 in 2020. Since then, lawmakers have become worried about the increasing number of drug overdoses.
However, Sammi Teo - public policy advocate for the Oregon Food Bank - said re-criminalizing drug possession won't fix this problem, especially with people lining up for detox services.
"We need treatment beds not jail beds," said Teo. "We need housing, mobile crisis counselors, better coordination between providers and law enforcement, and not to regress to tactics that increase the likelihood of overdose deaths, which is what the Legislature is proposing."
While lawmakers have pointed to overdoses as a reason to re-criminalize certain drugs, a study from 2023 concluded fatal drug overdoses did not increase in the year after Measure 110 was introduced.
Teo said addiction should be treated like a public health issue rather than a criminal one.
Je Amaechi, community safety manager with Unite Oregon, said there will be consequences if drug possession is criminalized again.
Members of Black and Latino communities, for instance, are already arrested at disproportionate rates and so the burden of criminalization will fall on these communities.
Amaechi also noted that the state is facing a public defender shortage.
"If this is an issue now, what are we going to do with the thousands of possession charges that would come if Measure 110 is reversed?" said Amaechi. "It would just create an even greater crisis. So, I think that's an important thing to keep in mind."
Teo said this issue is tied to hunger as well. She noted that people with criminal records have a harder time finding employment, educational opportunities and housing.
She said to address hunger, the state needs to create conditions that allow for stability and community connections.
"That means investing in proven strategies that reduce and prevent addiction and improve public safety," said Teo, "such as trauma-informed treatment, stable housing and non-police responses to people experiencing crisis."
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