Oregon re-criminalizes small amounts of hard drugs after 2020 voter initiative is overturned

Last month, state legislators overwhelmingly passed House Bill 4002, undoing a key portion of a voter-approved initiative that decriminalized small amounts of drugs.

Opponents of the bill, including treatment service providers and public defenders, said the new law marks a return to the failed war on drugs, which filled jails but did little to curb drug addiction.

Oregon voters overwhelmingly passed the decriminalization measure in 2020, known as Measure 110. It reduced penalties for possessing small amounts of hard drugs and established a framework to help people access treatment services. 

“We were too progressive,” said Jovannis Velez, an outreach worker with Recovery Works Northwest, which operates treatment centers throughout Oregon. “Society wasn’t ready for it.”

Advocates of the original measure touted it as an opportunity to help people struggling with addiction to get the help they need rather than face jail time.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of marijuana tax revenues were meant to go into drug treatment and harm reduction programs. But that didn’t translate into an improved care network for a state with the second-highest rate of substance use disorder in the nation and ranked 50th for access to treatment, according to an audit report released in 2023.

Sarah Pulver, a Outreach Peer Specialist with BHRC, pulls out Narcan from her book bag during outreach rounds in downtown Portland, Ore., on March 18.Jordan Gale for NBC News

Services were difficult to access and were never fully implemented, frustrating lawmakers who opposed decriminalization from the start. Spikes in overdose deaths, largely driven by fentanyl usage, and an increase in homelessness created a political backlash.

Opponents of the decriminalization bill argued that the pilot program had not achieved its intended results and only exacerbated open-air drug abuse.

“Combatting a problem by decriminalizing the problem is bad policy,” Oregon Senate Republicans said in a March statement. “Never again.”

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, of Portland, one of the bill’s authors, added that its passage will “be the start of real and transformative change for our justice system.”

“With this bill, we are doubling down on our commitment to make sure Oregonians have access to the treatment and care that they need,” she said in a statement.

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