Monday, Feb. 1 marked a new day for Oregon to stand in the national spotlight.
This time the state is gaining attention as the first to decriminalize multiple drugs under the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act.
The new law was passed by voters in November 2020 as Ballot Measure 110.
Baker County’s top law enforcement officers say that although they didn’t support the measure, they hope it results in people who use drugs getting treatment.
As explained in the ballot statement, the measure “eliminates criminal penalties for possession of specified quantities of controlled substances by adults and juveniles.”
Those amounts are:
• Heroin, 1 gram or less
• Cocaine, 2 grams or less
• Methamphetamine, 2 grams or less
• MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy), less than 1 gram or five pills
• LSD, less than 40 user units
• Psilocybin, less than 12 grams
•Methadone, less than 40 user units
• Oxycodone, less than 40 pills, tablets or capsules.
The ballot measure was approved statewide by a vote of 1,333,268 (58.46%) in favor and 947,313 (41.54%) opposed.
In Baker County, meanwhile, voters soundly rejected the measure by a margin of 5,956 (62.4%) to 3,590 (37.6%).
The law comes with a strategy for helping people receive treatment for substance abuse.
Both local law enforcement officers and treatment providers, however, are concerned that the law took effect before that strategy is fully ready.
While reducing punishment to a $100 fine for those found with user amounts of illegal drugs, the law also offers the option for the person to forego the fine and instead complete a health assessment with an addiction treatment professional.
Proponents of the new law hope the health assessment will lead to treatment for the drug user, but there is no requirement for that to happen.
At this point, a person cited on the Class E drug possession violation who chooses not to pay the fine is directed to receive an assessment by dialing the Addiction Recovery hotline: 503-575-3769. The hotline will be open around the clock every day, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
Baker City Police Chief Ray Duman and Baker County Sheriff Travis Ash said their officers will make the phone number available to those who want an assessment.
“We will be able to provide a telephone number for the assessment center line, where the individual can have an assessment and the addictions center will provide them with a letter to take to the court and have the fine waived,” Duman stated in an email to the Herald.
To help further the hope that those cited will continue in the next step to enroll in treatment, the law also requires the establishment of at least one addiction recovery center in each of the state’s 15 existing coordinated care organization service areas. The centers will be funded by tax money generated by the state’s legal marijuana industry.
Shari Selander, CEO of New Directions Northwest in Baker City, said her agency is eager to staff one of those centers, but again, the logistics are complicated.
The widespread Eastern Oregon Coordinated Care Organization includes Baker County and 11 other counties ranging from Lake County to Wheeler County to Wallowa County.
How just one center would serve all of those residents — some living more than 200 miles from Baker City — including helping transport them to one site, is a question yet to be answered, said Shad Thomas.
Thomas is a licensed clinical social worker and Level III drug and alcohol counselor who directs addictions programs for New Directions. Thomas also noted that there have been no changes to the state administrative rules that govern how the agency’s programs are run as a result of the new law.
Chief Duman and Sheriff Ash along with Baker County District Attorney Greg Baxter fear that the treatment portion of the law could be doomed to fail without any infrastructure in place as the officers start issuing citations for drug possession violations that Duman equates to a parking ticket.
And without the clout of the legal system to help motivate addicts to enroll in treatment and follow it through to completion, the law enforcement officials have little hope that those cited will take that next step beyond the medical assessment.
On the other hand, Duman points out, people cited can forego even the assessment if they choose to simply pay the $100 fine.
The law required the establishment of a 21-member Oversight and Accountability Council by Feb. 1. Council members, who were appointed by the Oregon Health Authority, will oversee the centers, which must be up and running by Oct. 1.
“We don’t even have a process in place, but the law has been enacted,” Duman said.
New Directions is expanding its programs and as part of that effort, the company recently hired two “recovery peer mentors” to help bring people to treatment, Thomas said.
“They will engage those with issues who are on the fence about getting treatment,” he said. “They are people who can go and meet with clients at their homes or take them out for a cup of coffee and mentor them in the recovery process.”
Both Thomas and Selander said they could not support the ballot measure as it was written despite their involvement in treating and supporting those battling drug addiction.
“Decriminalization has its place, but it needs much stronger ties to treatment than what Ballot Measure 110 provides,” Thomas said.
Selander bases her views on personal experience.
“I know firsthand what drugs and alcohol can do to individuals and families,” she said. “Are we going to see a high increase in the numbers due to this? Or will we see more people in treatment?”
Selander agrees with law enforcement officers who expect to see a rise in other crimes as the possession of hard drugs becomes a Class E violation.
“For drugs to occur at a higher rate — nothing good comes from that,” she said.
Duman points out that since Oregonians voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2014, Lance Woodward, the police department’s School Resource Officer, has seen an uptick in the availability of the drug among teens, including those as young as middle schoolers.
Duman expects the new law to do the same for the list of illegal drugs that now carry a citation for a Class E violation.
Selander and Thomas join law enforcement in wondering how the new law will affect their clients and the community, including its young people.
“If you can help individuals to prevent addictions to substances, that’s where I like to focus as much as I can,” Selander said. “I am concerned about what the effects of Measure 110 will be in the long term.”
Thomas also believes it will be more difficult to engage those who are addicted to drugs and struggle to remain in treatment without the “external motivator” of the legal system.
And looking at how the services at New Directions have been affected by the legalization of marijuana, Selander can’t help but wonder how lessening punishment for possession of illegal drugs will affect New Directions Northwest.
“There is an increase in mental health and substance abuse services since the marijuana law went into effect,” she said. “And there have been more individuals experiencing psychosis that has not been there before.
“I’m very concerned about our adolescents as well and the long-term impact,” she said. “That contributes to my own fears about Ballot Measure 110. As this is starting to roll out we’re still not sure how that is going to play out.”
Sheriff Ash said his deputies will be focusing on prevention, especially among the community’s young people.
That will come in the continuation of the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, but also in routine interactions to build relationships with youth throughout the county, he said.
“This is not an opportunity to try drugs,” Ash says of the decriminalization of possession of heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs on the list. “The drugs are still dangerous.
“We’re looking at everything we can do to bolster prevention,” he said, including with adults. “I’ve seen nothing good come out of drug use or abuse.”
He added, however, that he would be happy if the law proves successful.
“Somebody who is addicted has a medical condition. If we could get them help and get them better, that would be great,” he said.
Still, he is concerned that there is no infrastructure in place to coincide with the enactment of the new law.
Selander said the 21 members of the Oversight and Accountability Council were just announced Tuesday, Feb. 2.
“Obviously we are very concerned,” she said. “Just to have a health screening does not require treatment.”
Selander said she recalls that before the November election, the ballot measure was being touted as providing better and easier access to treatment.
“I’m not actually sure this is going to do that,” she said.
Selander echoes the concerns of Duman, Ash and Baxter, who say they expect the decriminalization of possession of user amounts of illegal drugs to lead to an increase in other crimes.
The Baker County Narcotics Enforcement Team, which includes city and county officers with help from the state police and District Attorney’s office, is still working cases in Baker County, Duman says.
“It will still be illegal and will still be a felony to distribute narcotics,” he said. “Drugs are still going to be here in the community and there are still going to be crimes associated with drug addiction.”
Baxter adds his skepticism to that of others in wondering how helpful the new law will be.
“I understand that these people need help and that they’re battling addictions,” Baxter said. “But at the same time, how many people are they hurting while they’re knee deep in addiction? It’s a lot.”
Baxter said he has seen those struggling with addiction not only hurt their spouses, their children, and other family members, but also victimize residents with burglaries and thefts.
“I do know the drug task force is still going to be hopping as far as drug delivery,” he said.
And he expects officers to be responding to an increase in property crimes, domestic violence and child abuse and neglect as a result of the new law.
“Other types of crimes are going to hit us hard,” Baxter said.