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Oregon Legislators Consider Reinstating Criminal Penalties for Drug Possession, Awaiting Governor's Decision

Following the approval by Oregon voters in 2020 to decriminalize the possession of minor quantities of drugs, state legislators are now proposing a reversal of this policy with a new bill that has successfully passed both the Senate and House. This move marks a significant shift for Oregon, a state known for pioneering progressive drug policies, as it contemplates retracting a groundbreaking law that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs just three years ago.

The Oregon Legislature took decisive action on Friday, with a bill aimed at reintroducing criminal penalties for small-scale drug possession. The bill, House Bill 4002, received a favorable vote of 21-8 in the Senate following a 51-7 approval in the House on Thursday. Governor Tina Kotek now has the opportunity to enact the bill. In conjunction, House Bill 5204, which allocates $211 million in funding for related measures, was also passed by the Senate with a 27-3 vote and is awaiting the Governor's approval.

Regarding Oregon's Measure 110 on Drug Decriminalization

Senator Kate Lieber, a Democrat from Portland and co-author of the bill, emphasized the legislation's role in reinforcing the state's dedication to providing Oregonians with necessary treatment and care. Lieber views the bill's passage as a pivotal moment for substantive and positive transformation within the justice system.

Measure 110, which received nearly 60% voter support in 2020, originally aimed to address drug possession as a public health issue rather than a criminal one. The measure reduced penalties for possessing small amounts of illicit drugs to a $100 fine, waivable upon agreement to undergo a health assessment. It was designed to fund a variety of services, including addiction treatment and harm-reduction efforts, with the broader goal of reducing the financial and social costs associated with drug-related arrests and incarcerations.

Challenges and Criticisms of Measure 110

Despite the intentions behind Measure 110 to enhance harm reduction resources, the implementation faced hurdles, with only a small fraction of individuals cited for possession seeking help through the newly established hotline. Furthermore, Oregon has experienced a significant increase in overdose deaths, attributed in part to the fentanyl crisis, raising questions about the measure's effectiveness in combating drug abuse and its associated consequences.

The Proposed Reversal: House Bill 4002

The newly passed House Bill 4002 seeks to reclassify the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs as a misdemeanor, introducing potential jail time and police authority to seize drugs. The bill also proposes a deflection program offering drug treatment as an alternative to criminal penalties and includes provisions to enhance prosecution of drug distribution while preserving certain harm reduction strategies.

Critics of the bill argue that it may not effectively address drug addiction and could reintroduce disproportional impacts on marginalized communities. The ACLU of Oregon and others have expressed concerns about the bill's rapid progression without comprehensive evaluation by medical and addiction experts.

As Governor Kotek considers the bill, its final implications for Oregon's drug policy and the broader conversation around drug decriminalization and treatment remain uncertain.


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