After Oregon became the first state to decriminalize drugs, Eugene, Oreg., police officer Jose Alvarez stopped arresting people for possession and began giving out tickets with the number for a rehab helpline. Most people smoking fentanyl or meth on the streets balled them up and tossed them onto the ground. “Those tickets frankly seemed like a waste of time,” said Alvarez, who stopped issuing them a few months after the law went into effect. Nearly three years into an experiment that proponents hoped would lead a nationwide relaxation of drug laws, many in Oregon have turned against the decriminalization initiative known as Measure 110, which passed with 58% support in 2020, the Wall Street Journal reports. People sprawled on sidewalks and using fentanyl with no fear of consequence have become a common sight in cities like Eugene and Portland. Business owners and local leaders are upset, as are liberal voters who hoped decriminalization would lead to more people getting help. Few drug users are taking advantage of new state-funded rehab programs.
Change appears likely. A coalition of city officials, police chiefs and district attorneys have called on the state legislature to recriminalize hard drugs. A measure to do so is in the works for next year’s ballot. A poll found the majority of Oregonians support the idea. The problem, say law-enforcement officers and researchers, is that the threat of jail time hasn’t been replaced with a new incentive for people struggling with addiction to seek treatment. Of 6,000 tickets have been issued for drug possession since decriminalization went into effect in 2021, just 92 people have called and completed assessments needed to connect them to services. The only penalty for those who don’t call is a $100 fine, which is rarely enforced. Before the law went into effect, people caught with small amounts of drugs were typically given a choice of court-mandated rehab or criminal sanctions such as jail time or probation. The number of fatal overdoses in Oregon during the 12 months that ended in May rose 23% from the same period a year earlier to 1,500. That is the third-highest increase in the nation, behind Washington and Nevada.