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Oregon’s drug recriminalization bill nears vote as debate rages

Officer Joey Yoo gives a citation to a man he stopped for using fentanyl in public. Yoo said handing out citations doesn't appear to move people from using drugs on the streets into treatment programs.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Officer Joey Yoo gives a citation to a man he stopped for using fentanyl in public. Yoo said handing out citations doesn't appear to move people from using drugs on the streets into treatment programs.

Law enforcement groups now back House Bill 4002, but opposition from fans of decriminalization is as strong as ever.

A bill that would end Oregon’s three-year experiment in drug decriminalization gained momentum Monday, as law enforcement groups and local governments that had been prominent critics signaled they support a proposal with tougher consequences unveiled last week.

But as lawmakers prepared to move House Bill 4002 out of committee, advocates defending 2020′s ballot Measure 110 showed they would not back down. In a press conference, they tore into top Democrats, who they said had ignored concerns voiced by people of color about reintroducing criminal penalties for being caught with small amounts of illicit drugs.

The groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, Latino Network, Urban League of Portland and the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, accused lawmakers who crafted the bill of creating a policy for political reasons, rather than to solve the state’s addiction woes.

“State leaders are returning to the war on drugs to cover for their own failures,” said Larry Turner, an addiction and recovery specialist who told reporters that racial minorities would bear the brunt of a new law on drug possession. “It’s obscene.”

“With each individual conversation it was clear that our warnings and data had not been heeded, let alone considered, because of their omission,” said Jennifer Parrish Taylor, advocacy director at the Urban League of Portland.

HB 4002 has been a focal point of the five-week legislative session that must adjourn by March 10, spurring hours-long hearings and pitting some Democrats against interest groups that they are often aligned with.

Among other things, the bill would increase access to medications that ease opioid withdrawal, expand treatment services — including in jails — and alter state law tomake it easier to seek stiff penalties for drug dealers. The bill would also require the state to track data to determine how the misdemeanor is being enforced among different racial demographics.

The key debate, though, concerns how to resume criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs like heroin, fentanyl and meth. Since February 2021, the state has treated such possession as a violation punishable by a toothless ticket. But soaring overdoses and public drug use that have come along with the spread of fentanyl have convinced majority Democrats that it is time to reverse course, a step Republicans have long advocated.

If lawmakers don’t act, a coalition of deep-pocketed Oregonians has pledged to place a measure on the November ballot more fully rolling back Measure 110. Polling suggests voters could be eager for such a change.

In an amendment to HB 4002 introduced last week, Democrats made several changes designed to placate one segment of critics. The amendment would ensure that people caught with drugs could face up to 180 days in jail — more than the 30 days Democrats had initially pushed for, but less than the year in jail Republicans and many law enforcement groups favored.

Two Democrats who have helped lead negotiations — Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber of Portland, and Rep. Jason Kropf of Bend — emphasized the bill would offer opportunities for people to complete treatment rather than facing conviction, a path known as “conditional discharge.” The bill also would allow people serving jail sentences for possession to be released from custody in order to participate in a treatment program instead. Convictions would automatically be expunged after three years.

The latest proposal also weakened an earlier provision that would have forced police to offer services to a person caught with drugs rather than bringing them to jail and seeking charges, a concept known as deflection. After that idea saw pushback from local governments, Democrats made such a system optional for counties. As of Monday,23 of Oregon’s 36 counties had signed letters committing to creating deflection systems, including the state’s seven most populous.

The new amendment, hashed out in closed-door negotiations, is set to get a public hearing on Monday evening. Because of the stronger criminal consequences introduced last week, it will find more support this time around than lawmakers heard when they took up a previous proposal on Feb. 7.

Related: Oregon lawmakers hear hours of passionate testimony on proposals to recriminalize drug possession

In a joint statement Monday, lobbying groups for prosecutors, sheriffs, police, cities and counties said they would back the bill.

“Our communities are crying out for solutions,” Portland Police Sgt. Aaron Schmautz, president of the city’s rank-and-file police union, said in a statement. “The compromise struck in HB 4002 is a good first step. It recognizes the need for accountability, options for cities and counties of varying size, and restores the ability for interdiction in cases involving distribution of a controlled substance.”

“We understand that addressing Oregon’s profound addiction and overdose crisis demands a comprehensive strategy, significant resources and real solutions,” McMinnville Police Chief Matt Scales, president of the state police chiefs association, said in the same release. “We applaud the Legislature for working collaboratively to craft bipartisan legislation that combines vital tools for law enforcement with significant drug treatment resources.”

The support of law enforcement groups is likely to hold weight with Republicans, who based their own proposals for rolling back Measure 110 on policies advocated by the same organizations.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, suggested last week that his members would be supportive of the bill in its latest form. But House Republicans are showing signs they’re not sold. After saying last week he was “conceptually aligned” with the bill, House Minority Leader Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, seemed to pull back on Monday.

“As of today, the proposal before the legislature is far from a perfect solution, but that is unsurprising given that the majority party is beholden to radical pro-drug special interest groups,” Helfrich said in a statement that puzzled some lobbyists who’d been working on the issue. “We need a solution that works for Oregonians, and much can be done to strengthen this proposal with the time remaining in this session.”

Meanwhile, groups advocating on behalf of Measure 110 are making very different suggestions.

At Monday’s press conference, ACLU of Oregon Executive Director Sandy Chung said provisions in the bill that appeared to prioritize treatment for drug users were “false promises” that would prove illusory. She argued the bill would give too much leeway to police and prosecutors, who could opt not to offer a defendant treatment to have their case dropped.

”Do you trust lawmakers when they say this very complicated bill will change our criminal system so that people will have multiple real off-ramps away from jail to treatment?” Chung said. “If you believe this, I have a bridge to sell you.”

Chung also pointed out that the state’s justice system is ill-equipped to handle an onrush of new criminal cases. That’s backed up by the Oregon Public Defense Commission, which told lawmakers Monday it would need funding for the equivalent of 39 new attorneys to account for demand increases it anticipated from HB 4002.

Chung and her allies say they were kept out of negotiations over HB 4002 in recent weeks, after raising strenuous objections to any proposal to recriminalize drug possession. But they also offered four “government accountability measures” the group said lawmakers must include in the bill if they insist on moving forward.

Those include:

  • bringing back the provision requiring police to offer a person to accept treatment, rather than being booked in jail and having charges filed. Chung said making such an offering voluntary was unacceptable.
  • phasing in criminal consequences for drug possession only after every county in the state has a system up and running to handle the demand for treatment services.
  • scaling back criminal penalties to only apply to people possessing drugs in plain sight. Chung said this would discourage police from using pretext stops to search people for drugs.
  • setting a date for the new misdemeanor crime to automatically sunset. “At which time,” Chung said, “lawmakers can review the intended and unintended consequences, impacts and cost of criminalization and determine if the criminal offense should be continued.”

The concept of a sunset has seen interest from some Democrats, including Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a member of the joint committee taking up HB 4002.
“I’m not ready to go back to what has been in the past,” Prozanski said earlier this month, “but I also understand we have to be able to do something at least on a temporary basis to help gain control of our communities.”

But as of Monday, it appeared major changes to the bill were unlikely. Legislative staff and lobbyists expected HB 4002 to get a committee vote Tuesday evening. If it passes, it could get a vote in the full House as early as Thursday.

Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.