(NewsNation) — An increase in overdose deaths in Oregon has drawn renewed attention to the state’s law decriminalization of certain drugs.
Oregon passed a measure in 2020 to decriminalize drugs including heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl. The measure also redirected tax revenue from marijuana sales to fund addiction services.
Oregon saw a 30% increase in overdose deaths between January 2021 and January 2022, the second year of the state’s drug decriminalization practices, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Following a spike in drug overdoses over the past couple of years, critics of the measure say it missed the mark, while proponents say it’s just one piece of the puzzle.
Why decriminalize drugs?
Oregon’s law meant police could no longer arrest someone on charges linked to the possession of small amounts of heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, oxycodone and other drugs.
Instead, those found in possession would face a $100 fine or a health assessment that could lead to addiction counseling.
Proponents of decriminalization said treatment needed to be the priority and that besides facing the prospect of jail or prison time, having a criminal record makes it difficult to find housing and jobs.
Two dozen district attorneys opposed the measure at the time, saying it would lead to an increase in the acceptability of drugs.
Destigmatization, however, has been a factor in the success other countries have seen in their own decriminalization actions, some experts say.
Does it work?
Carl L. Hart, an author and a psychology professor at Columbia University, says decriminalization is a good first step, but shouldn’t be can’t independently solve the problem of rising overdoses.
Protugal, for example, decriminalized drugs in 2001 and saw a “radical decrease” in the number of overdoses, Hart said. That’s partially because addictions and drug use weren’t as stigmatized, he said.
Portugal and other nations who have decriminalized drugs also increased addiction services, including what Hart referred to as “drug checking.”
“Drug checking allows people to submit small samples of their drugs for testing and then they can get a chemical printout of what is contained in the substance,” Hart said. “If a substance contains a potentially dangerous adulterant, the person knows not to take it. The services are free (and) anonymous. Those services are not available in Oregon.”
That’s a major problem, Hart said, since drug-related overdoses are primarily related to people taking drugs without knowing what’s in them.
“In Portugal, they have six overdose deaths per million people. In the US we have 312, and that tells you that we’re doing something different than what they’re doing,” Hart said.
Under Oregon’s law, people cited with possession of certain drugs can have the maximum $100 fine waived if they call a hotline for a health assessment, the Associated Press reported at the time.
Of about 2,000 citations issued by police in the year after Oregon’s decriminalization took effect, only 92 recipients called the hotline by mid-February, according to AP.
Almost half of those cited didn’t show up in court.
From a law enforcement perspective
President of the Portland Police Association Sgt. Aaron Schmautz said his city has seen a “giant explosion” in the homeless population and an exacerbation of what he called “disorder-related crimes.”
He also “wildly disagrees” with the notion that a lack of services is driving Oregon’s overdose deaths.
“The reality is most of our overdose deaths are people who are experiencing crisis,” Schmautz said.
“We’ve had some young people overdose on fentanyl. People who are using and then being expected to be the person who is seeking those services seems to be the actual issue here.”
Determining how to get people help will be key in easing the state’s opioid problem, Schmautz said, adding that drug use is a public health problem, not a policing problem.
“If people are both using drugs, using low-level drugs, whatever else but then also engaging in other criminal conduct — those are just two completely differently related issues,” he said.
Hart noted that fentanyl-related overdoses in particular underscore the importance of drug checking. Oftentimes, people aren’t seeking out fentanyl. Rather, the drugs they are using, such as heroin, unknowingly contain fentanyl, leading to accidental overdoses, he said.
“If they had drug checking, they would know that fentanyl is in their substance and then they know not to take it or take smaller amounts,” Hart said. “We have to make sure we’re clear that this is really an issue of adulterants and not the drugs that people are seeking. And if you want to deal with that you have to have drug-checking services, which they do not have in Oregon.”
Anyone struggling with addiction can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357 for English and Spanish referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.