Oregon lawmakers voted to recriminalize drugs. The bill’s future is now in the governor’s hands

PORTLAND, Ore. — The future of an Oregon bill that would roll back the state’s first drug decriminalization law now rests in the hands of Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek.

The bill — which would make possession of small amounts of drugs a crime again — has not yet reached Kotek’s desk, but she will review it when it does, her office said Monday. Kotek has not commented on the bill since its passage Friday, but previously indicated he was open to considering it.

“If it’s a bill that I think will have the results we need, then I’m committed to making sure we can move forward,” Kotek told reporters in January, before the start of the short 35 legislative session to dawn.

“The issue of addiction and the need for pathways to recovery should not be a political football. We must understand any changes we make and ensure they improve the lives of Oregonians, she added.

For social justice groups, the new bill represents a major setback. Portland-based advocacy group Imagine Black said it felt like lawmakers were prioritizing the voices of police over those of communities of color.

“This is a pain. It hurts in a very real way,” says Danita Harris, the group’s deputy director of exercise building.

Measure 110, which voters approved in 2020, decriminalized possession of small amounts of illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Advocates said treatment is more effective than prison at helping people overcome addiction and that the decades-long approach of arresting people for possession and use of drugs has not worked.

The law focused hundreds of millions of dollars of the state’s cannabis tax revenue on addiction treatment. But money was slow to flow and health authorities, already struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, struggled to keep the new treatment system afloat, state auditors found. At the same time, the fentanyl crisis began to cause an increase in fatal overdoses.

Some researchers have found the law isn’t linked to the spike in fatal overdoses, but others say it’s too early to have conclusive data.

As Oregon began seeing one of the largest spikes in overdose deaths in the country, Republican opposition to the law increased and a well-funded campaign group called for a ballot measure to change or repeal it. Faced with growing political and public pressure, Democrats who had historically supported the law changed their position and ultimately agreed to reinstate criminal penalties for so-called possession for personal use.

But some Democratic lawmakers opposed the bill, fearing the policy would result in more arrests and worsen social inequality.

“This bill will have devastating impacts on communities of color and low-income Oregonians, burdening our already strained justice system while failing to address the root causes of our addiction crisis,” the Democratic senator wrote Kayse Jama in a letter explaining his “no”. voice.

The recently passed bill makes possession for personal use a criminal offense punishable by up to six months in prison. It allows police to tackle their use in public spaces such as parks and aims to make it easier to prosecute people who sell drugs.

The bill also provides ways in which treatment can be offered as an alternative to criminal sanctions. But it merely “encourages,” rather than mandates, law enforcement agencies to create diversion programs that would divert people to addiction and mental health treatment instead of the criminal justice system.

“Counties are not required to provide diversion or diversion programs, and even if these programs are created, police and prosecutors are not required to use them,” Jama said. “Even a ‘minor’ drug charge creates barriers that will last a lifetime, preventing Oregonians from accessing stable housing, qualifying for loans, or getting jobs.”

Jama added that the bill could flood Oregon’s justice system, which is already facing a severe shortage of public defenders, with a new wave of low-level possession cases.

In an analysis shared with lawmakers, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission predicted that black people would be disproportionately affected by possession convictions as a result of the bill, but said racial disparities would be smaller compared to years leading up to the bill. decriminalization.

The bill ultimately passed the Senate on a 21-8 vote, with bipartisan support, including from the chamber’s Democratic president and the Republican minority leader. The state House passed it the day before by a vote of 51 to 7, also with bipartisan support.

Under Oregon law, the governor has five business days to veto a bill once it reaches their desk. If the governor signs it — or does nothing — it will go into effect. However, if the legislature adjourns before the five-day countdown begins, the governor has thirty days to veto a bill.

It appears Kotek will have more time to veto since the legislative session ends Sunday and she had not yet received the bill by Monday.