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Oregon undoes groundbreaking drug decriminalization law

<span>A person covered with white blanket walks past an encampment near Union Station in Portland in January.</span><span>Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images</span>
A person covered with white blanket walks past an encampment near Union Station in Portland in January.Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Oregon lawmakers have moved to reintroduce criminal penalties for the possession of hard drugs, in effect ending the state’s groundbreaking three-year decriminalization experiment.

In 2020, nearly 60% of voters moved to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs with the passage of Measure 110, but the new law had grown increasingly controversial as the state grappled with the fentanyl crisis and growing public drug use.

Related: How Oregon turned on its own trailblazing drug law: ‘Not the utopia we were promised’

Lawmakers had recently reached a bipartisan deal to undo a key aspect of the law and make minor possession a misdemeanor, while also allocating millions of dollars toward specialty court programs as well as mental health and addiction treatment.

The Oregon house approved the $211m bill earlier this week, followed by the state senate, which voted to approve the measure on Friday. The bill now heads to the desk of Governor Tina Kotek, who said in January that she is open to signing a bill that would roll back decriminalization, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

The measure makes the possession of small amounts of drugs such as heroin or methamphetamine a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail. It enables police to confiscate the drugs and crack down on their use on sidewalks and in parks. Drug treatment is to be offered as an alternative to criminal penalties.

The measure passed despite concerns that it would create more suffering and disproportionately harm people of color. Research by the state has found that the changes would disproportionately affect Black and Latino people.

The authors of the bill have said that drug users will have the opportunity to seek treatment before facing any criminal consequences and that the proposal was necessary to give law enforcement the power to tackle public drug use. One proponent pledged to ensure it would not have racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

“With this bill, we are doubling down on our commitment to make sure Oregonians have access to the treatment and care that they need,” said the Democratic Senate majority leader, Kate Lieber of Portland, one of the bill’s authors, adding that its passage will “be the start of real and transformative change for our justice system”.

Oregon has seen a 1,500% rise in overdose deaths since the pandemic started, the steepest increase in the country, according to recent federal data. In 2022, almost 1,000 people in the state died from opiate overdoses. But research has so far showed no correlation between the rise in overdoses and decriminalization.

Still, the public health crisis, coupled with a shortage in affordable housing that has fueled homelessness, has become more visible and residents and business owners have grown increasingly exasperated. City residents report seeing people openly smoking fentanyl in downtowns while small towns that had historically low rates of homelessness are now seeing encampments.

“What has developed in the last three years is not the utopian Shangri-La that we have been promised with ballot Measure 110,” Christopher Parosa, the Eugene district attorney, said at a community forum this year, “but rather a dystopian nightmare that is akin to a grim Hollywood movie.”

The passage came after weeks of tense debate over proposed changes to Measure 110 and Oregon’s addiction crisis and rising overdoses, and included hours of testimony from law enforcement, advocates, local officials and residents directly affected.

In testimony before lawmakers, supporters of overhauling the law urged action to address the “death grip” of fentanyl and the drug use they say is visible on streets across the state, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. Critics argued that restoring criminal penalties would not stop drug use and would instead make it harder for people to quit, and that the state’s under-resourced criminal justice system was not ready to accommodate the changes.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon said in a statement that the state had rushed the bill through “without essential and necessary vetting by treatment providers, doctors and nurses, addiction experts, budget experts, people with lived experiences or anyone who could adequately assess the consequences of such a massive shift of public policy”.

“People with money, connections, or racial privilege will be most likely to get into limited treatment spaces. Black, brown, and low-income people will continue to be jailed at the highest rates,” the statement said.

Lawmakers who opposed the bill voiced similar concerns. A democratic state senator, Lew Frederick of Portland, who is one of four Black senators, said the bill had too many flaws.

“I’m concerned that [the bill] will attempt to use the same tactics of the past, and fail, only to reinforce the punishment narrative that has failed for 50 years,” he said, adding that the measure could move more people into the court system without making them healthier.

The Associated Press contributed reporting