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Why Oregon is recriminalizing even small amounts of illicit drugs

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Three years after Oregon became the first state in the country to decriminalize drug use - that's including drugs like methamphetamines and fentanyl - the experiment now appears to be dead. State lawmakers sent a bill last week to Oregon's governor that would once again make it a crime to possess small, personal-use amounts of drugs. What's happening in Oregon could end up reshaping the national debate over how to respond to America's deadly fentanyl crisis. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann and Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Conrad Wilson have been following this and join us now. Hey to both of you.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: So, Conrad, I want to start with you because I need you to catch us up here. Go back in time and explain why Oregon voters decided to decriminalize personal drug use in the first place.

WILSON: So the idea was to make addiction something that, in Oregon, would be almost entirely dealt with as a public health issue. So, you know, think clinics with doctors, nurses. And really, the hope was to sever the connection between substance use and the criminal justice system. So when voters passed ballot measure 110 in 2020, there was a lot of hope that Oregon could try something different to keep people out of prisons and jails. Not only did measure 110 decriminalize small amounts of hard drugs. It also dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to expand treatment. That part isn't going away.

CHANG: Right. OK. Then fast-forward three years to today, and Oregon is abandoning the decriminalization part of this whole experiment. Why the shift?

WILSON: Well, a lot of Oregonians blame Measure 110 for the rise in overdose deaths and a worsening homelessness crisis. But Oregon has long had a shortage of affordable housing, and some researchers say fentanyl is to blame for the spike in overdose deaths. The opioid entered the state's drug supply at roughly the same time voters passed Measure 110. Still, lawmakers went into this legislative session under a lot of pressure to recriminalize drugs. The debate around the bill on both sides was really heated. Jesse Merrithew is a civil rights attorney in Portland. He told lawmakers that decriminalization - it might reduce the street problems, but it isn't going to help people who are struggling with addiction.

JESSE MERRITHEW: The difference now is that instead of leaving people on the street to suffer in public, you're going to leave people in jail cells to suffer. But there, they'll be out of sight and out of mind.

WILSON: But others testified it was the criminal consequences or the threat that helped them stop using drugs. Renee Peffer (ph) now works with law enforcement, helping people struggling with addiction, and says she's been sober for 20 years.

RENEE PEFFER: I had a choice. I could go to prison, or I could go to treatment. I actually spent enough time in jail for my head to clear out, and I'm very grateful that I was given the opportunity to go get treatment instead of going to prison.

WILSON: And that's what got us to last week, where the legislature's Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly voted to recriminalize drugs.

CHANG: OK. Well, Brian, can you just expand the scope here? Like, why is the backlash against this experiment in Oregon kind of a big deal nationally?

MANN: Yeah. Ailsa, this is being watched really closely all over the country, in part because drug deaths are so grim right now, topping 112,000 fatal overdoses a year. There was hope Oregon's experiment would offer some answers and offer a roadmap also for how to dismantle the so-called war on drugs. That's the set of really tough state and federal crime laws that punish people with addiction, hitting Black and Hispanic families especially hard. Researchers now say the science is clear that when you criminalize addiction, it does help a small number of people, but a lot more are actually likely to die from overdoses. I spoke about this with Dr. Nora Volkow, who heads the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She's the federal government's top expert on addiction.

NORA VOLKOW: The data show much more detrimental effects. It's at least thirteenfold higher risk of dying when these individuals are released from jail or prison, extremely high rates of mortality.

MANN: The reason that happens, experts say, is people get out of custody without getting drug treatment. They often go back to using, and that's when they're really vulnerable to fatal overdoses. Now it appears likely Oregon is going to go back to this policy of sending people to jail for addiction.

CHANG: Well, do you think this shift in Oregon will have an effect on the wider debate over drug decriminalization, then?

MANN: Yeah, that's what I'm hearing from public health experts. They had hoped that success in Oregon would help the rest of the country shift in a new direction. Now that hope is gone. I spoke about this with Kassandra Frederique. She heads the Drug Policy Alliance. That's one of the national groups that backed Measure 110 in Oregon.

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE: It's a disappointing setback for a hard-won bill. It was not easy to do in Oregon. It won't be easy now, right? We are experiencing a major backlash for drug policy. Yes, this is a setback.

MANN: So what's happening in Oregon is echoing for a lot of smaller experiments around the country trying to shift the addiction response toward health care and treatment, away from police and incarceration. And now, Ailsa, a lot of those smaller projects are facing the same kind of backlash and loss of political support we're seeing in Oregon.

CHANG: But it is worth mentioning that despite recriminalizing small amounts of drug possession, Oregon is still on track to spend a lot more money than it has in the past on addiction care, right, Conrad?

WILSON: That's right. Lawmakers appear committed to funding treatment and really even boosting it. During the past three years, treatment has slowly expanded. But right now many communities in Oregon still don't have enough space in rehab and recovery programs, even for people who want and are desperately seeking addiction care. So in theory, this bill that's been sent to the governor gives people a choice between criminalization and drug treatment, but experts say that kind of health care system just doesn't exist yet. They think a lot of these very ill people will simply wind up in jail.

CHANG: That is Conrad Wilson with Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, along with NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann in New York. Thank you to both of you.

WILSON: You're welcome.

MANN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICO SEGAL AND THE SOCIAL EXPERIMENT SONG, "PASS THE VIBES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.