Oregon's new drug laws take effect, but promised rehab services could be years away

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Oregon’s war on drugs will see major shifts in tactics as of Monday, but some advocates say it may be a far cry from a ceasefire.

In November, Oregonians overwhelmingly passed Measure 110, which reduces possession of small amounts of most illicit drugs from cocaine to heroin to a civil infraction which will earn offenders a $100 fine or a health assessment.

A 24/7 drug addiction hotline, which went live on Monday, will offer free health assessments as outlined in the measure until rehab clinics can be set up. People who call the hotline will have their $100 fee waived.

It also creates a fund paid for with cannabis tax revenue to cover the cost of 15 drug rehab clinics services set up by an oversight council responsible for administering the fund.

To that end, the 21-member Oversight and Accountability Council members named by the Oregon Health Authority on Monday included a wide range of men, women, and people of color from medical, tribal, religious, and nonprofit communities. They include representatives from Union Gospel Mission, Confederate Tribes of Grand Ronde, and De Paul Treatment Centers.

Measure 110 was backed by deep pocket donors such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg along with medical professionals, progressives, and criminal justice reformers with the intent of correcting racial disparities in drug enforcement and fund recovery programs.

Some like Portland police officer Melissa Newhard has expressed doubt the new law will see fewer officers or drug searches on the streets even if they no longer carry criminal charges.

Drug dealing is still illegal under the measure and it does little to stop officers from questioning someone about drugs in their possession as a result.

“It will be interesting to see how this measure changes things, if it helps people long-term or not, or the use of drugs, or how many drugs are around,” Newhard told Oregon Public Broadcasting.

In December, Gov. Kate Brown proposed delaying Measure 110’s promised clinics until 2022 due to pandemic-induced budget constraints on the state’s health care system. The idea drew outrage from state health leaders who stress the delay could mean life and death.

Recent data suggests that Oregon’s drug problems have only grown worse since the onset of the pandemic.

In October 2020, the OHA reported drug overdose deaths between April and May of that year saw a spike of about 70%.

Tom Jeanne, deputy state health secretary and epidemiologist, said the effect of the pandemic is still unclear, but did not rule it out.

“It is premature to say how much of the spike in overdose deaths is attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Jeanne said. “However, the realization that we will be dealing with COVID-19 for some time, and other stressors related to jobs, school and social isolation, may increase feelings of anxiety and depression, and that can lead to a harmful level of alcohol or other drug use.”

The Oversight and Accountability Council will first meet in late February to begin planning for services required under Measure 110.

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