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Lawmakers Prep Tweaks To Oregon’s Voter-Approved Drug Decriminalization Law

The Oregon Capitol is pictured Dec. 10, 2015, in Salem, Ore.
John Rosman
The Oregon Capitol is pictured Dec. 10, 2015, in Salem, Ore.

A bill moving through the Legislature includes some meaningful changes to the treatment process envisioned in 2020's Ballot Measure 110.

A voter-approved law to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs and increase access to addiction treatment would see substantive changes under a bill moving through the Oregon Legislature.

While the underpinnings of 2020′s Ballot Measure 110 would remain intact, tweaks that have been hashed out in private workgroup meetings would modify the structure of state-funded treatment programs. They would also allow people ticketed for possessing small amounts of drugs to undergo a less-rigorous screening process than envisioned in the measure in order to have the citation dropped in the courts.

Those changes are now wrapped up inSenate Bill 755, introduced this session in order to apply a legislative stamp to Measure 110. In a whirlwind hearing on Tuesday with legislative deadlines forcing quick action — the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Ballot Measure 110 Implementation passed an amendment package into the bill with little discussion before referring it to another committee.

The alterations have been hashed out over the course of two months of workgroup meetings, in a process that participants say was extensive and amenable. The actual amendments lawmakers wound up voting on were not available publicly until Tuesday.

“This was an extremely thoughtful process,” said Tera Hurst, executive director of the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, which helped pass Measure 110. “There’s nothing in there that people were pounding their fists against the table on.”

But SB 755 does envision some sizable changes to the measure. Maybe most significantly, it increases the number of publicly funded service clusters that need to be created in order to help Oregonians with behavioral health struggles.

Along with the first-in-the-nation drug decriminalization ushered in by Measure 110, a series of “addiction recovery centers” were to be developed around the state — one in each of roughly a dozen service territories the state uses to administer the Oregon Health Plan.

Under SB 755, the state will instead fund something known as “behavioral health resource networks,” groupings of health and social services that would be set up in each of the state’s 36 counties, and would meet the same essential requirements.

According to Hurst, the name change was a way to address the fact that the services offered under Measure 110 didn’t need to be in the form of a single, stand-alone “center” where people would get care. Instead, what’s now envisioned could be composed of multiple organizations working together to provide a network of service.

Hurst said it also didn’t make sense to tie the program to service areas used in the Oregon Health Plan, some of which are enormous.

“In Eastern Oregon that could mean driving two or three hours to get services,” she said. “That’s not the intent.”

Another significant change lawmakers could approve has to do with how some people come in contact with the new web of services. Under Measure 110, anyone given a non-criminal citation for possessing illicit drugs would have two options: pay a $100 fine, or complete a comprehensive health needs assessment to have the fine waived.

As SB 755 now stands, that assessment would not be necessary. Instead, people would receive a less rigorous “screening” to determine what care they might require. Those screenings could be provided by a peer-support specialist.

“The intent is to have the peer-to-peer connection before it feels clinical and intimidating,” Hurst said. “It doesn’t mean that you can’t get an assessment. You start with a screening. That gets you the $100 waived.”

The amendments added to SB 755 make a host of other changes to Measure 110, too — for instance ensuring that $100 fines for drug possession are used to fund services, allowing a hotline used for conducting health screenings to continue past its original end date in October, and directing grant funding to communities who’ve been disproportionately impacted by the drug war.

The changes appear to have support from some of the most visible opponents of Measure 110. Mike Marshall, director of the group Oregon Recovers, which fought the measure, said the bill makes some “instrumental changes that I think are good.”

Marshall repeated a critique that the provisions for awarding grants under Measure 110 don’t fully align with a plan floated by the state’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission, but said “they will fund meaningful, needed programs.”

Now that it’s been amended, SB 755 is heading to the budget committee, which will consider the costs of Measure 110. In arecently released budget framework, the Legislature’s lead budget writers signaled they support fully funding services under the measure — something that was not always a given.

The bill was only one of many the Senate’s judiciary committee has amended and passed on in quick fashion this week. Under legislative deadlines, bills need to clear their first committee by Tuesday in most cases in order to be considered alive. That requirement doesn’t apply to bills parked in committees dealing with budget, revenue, or rules.

Among other notable proposals the Senate Judiciary Committee passed: a provision toaward up to $65,000 per year of imprisonment to people who’ve been wrongly convicted in Oregon, and a bill that would give healthcare providers some protection from being sued in relation to COVID-19.

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.