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Few Seek Treatment Help Under Oregon Drug Decriminalization

Oregon voters approved a ballot measure in 2020 to decriminalize hard drugs after being told it was a way to fundn recovery centers that would offer people aid instead of incarceration. In the first year after the new approach took effect in February 2021, only one percent of people who received citations for possessing controlled substances asked for help via a new hotline, reports the Associated Press. Oregon is the first state to decriminalize possession of personal-use amounts of heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, oxycodone and other drugs. Its program is being watched as a potential model for other states. Some question whether the approach is proving too lenient. Others say the new system has had a positive impact by redirecting millions of dollars into facilities to help those with drug dependency issues. The funds come from taxes generated by Oregon’s legal marijuana industry and savings from reductions in arrests, jail time and probation supervision.


Under Ballot Measure 110, possession of controlled substances is a newly created Class E “violation,” instead of a felony or misdemeanor. It carries a maximum $100 fine, which can be waived if the person calls a hotline for a health assessment that can lead to addiction counseling and other services. Of 2,000 citations issued by police in the year after decriminalization took effect, only 92 of those who received them called the hotline by mid-February. Only 19 requested resources for services, said William Nunemann of Lines for Life, which runs the hotline. Almost half of those who got citations failed to show up in court. State health officials reported 473 unintentional opioid overdose deaths from January to August 2021. That narrowly surpasses the total for all of 2020, and is nearly 200 deaths more than 2019. Opioid overdose visits to emergency rooms and urgent care centers have been rising. The Oregon Health Authority cites as possible reasons the greater presence of fentanyl, which has increased overdose deaths across the U.S., and a downturn in reporting during the pandemic. “The Oregon ballot initiative was presented to the public as pro-treatment but it has been a complete failure in that regard,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and former adviser in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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