Oregon's bold move to decriminalize small amounts of all hard drugs and expand treatment is now meeting the reality of implementation as the treatment community is divided over the way forward.



In November, Oregon voters tried something new. They voted to move away from a key part of the war on drugs - putting more and more people in prison. Oregonians passed a measure decriminalizing possession of small amounts of all hard drugs. The new law also expanded access to addiction treatment. Now comes the hard part - making that new approach reality. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: While critics everywhere have long called the war on drugs a racist, inhumane fiasco that fails to deliver justice or health, Oregon's the first state to actually take a big leap toward radically changing those systems.

MIKE SCHMIDT: What we've been doing for the last number of decades has completely failed.

WESTERVELT: DA Mike Schmidt, the top prosecutor in Oregon's most populated county Multomah, says when it comes to drugs, the health model, not criminalization, is the only way to go.

SCHMIDT: Criminalization keeps people in the shadows. It keeps people from seeking out help from telling their doctors, from telling their family members that they have a problem.

WESTERVELT: Today, under what's called Measure 110, anyone across Oregon caught by police with small amounts of any illegal drug is issued a civil citation, like a traffic ticket, not a criminal charge. So if you're holding, among other drugs, up to 2 grams of methamphetamine or cocaine, 40 hits of LSD, up to a gram of heroin, you get a citation and a $100 fine. That fine gets waived if you agree to get a health screening through an addiction recovery hotline, an assessment that might lead to counseling or treatment. But realizing 110's promise so far has sharply divided the recovery community and alienated some law enforcement. Even many recovery leaders here who strongly support ending the criminalization of addiction are deeply concerned.

MIKE MARSHALL: They put the cart before the horse.

WESTERVELT: Mike Marshall is co-founder of the group Oregon Recovers. He says the state has basically jumped off the decriminalization cliff towards a treatment system that's fractured, dysfunctional, incomplete, underfunded and not at all ready to handle more people.

MARSHALL: Our big problem is our health care system doesn't want it, is not prepared for it, doesn't have the resources for it and honestly doesn't have the leadership to begin to incorporate that.

WESTERVELT: Decriminalization here will leave too many people stuck waiting for treatment, Marshall says, in a dangerous limbo when they could potentially overdose. Measure 110 did call for about a hundred million dollars annually in new treatment funding, money funneled mainly from the state's marijuana tax. It calls for a series of addiction recovery centers across the state. But in Marshall's view, there's no coherent plan to channel those funds in a strategic way to expand capacity for a system that has too few detox beds, not enough residential or outpatient treatment and recovery chairs, not enough sober housing and too few harm-reduction programs, all services that'll be desperately needed, Marshall says, as more people are steered away from the justice system and into the health system.

MARSHALL: Many times, the only way to get access to recovery services is by being arrested or interacting with the criminal justice system. Measure 110 took away that pathway.

WESTERVELT: So a key selling point of decriminalization in Oregon is that it will significantly reduce racial and ethnic disparities in convictions and arrests. Blacks make up about 2% of Oregon's population. But as in the rest of the country, they've experienced far higher arrest rates for drug possession. Here along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in northeast Portland, Julia Mines runs what's called The Miracles Club. It's the state's only place targeting the African American recovering community. And they run up to three recovery meetings every day all year.

JULIA MINES: At the beginning of this, I wasn't for it. It took me to go to prison to get on the right track.

WESTERVELT: Mines had gone far off track due to a cocaine addiction. She says she lost jobs, friends, her health and a child to adoption. Mines says she changed her mind on 110 when she realized it might mean a chance to end the criminalization of addiction that continues to ravage people in her community. She's now on one of the measure's implementation working groups.

MINES: I made my voice loud and clear. I'm here representing the African American community and that if we're going to implement this, we need to have resources for the people that are just getting those citations.

WESTERVELT: This month, Miracles was among 48 groups statewide that got a portion of the first wave of new treatment funding. Another key person helping to lead Oregon through this rocky decriminalization transition is 36-year-old Tony Vezina. He's the new chairman of Oregon's Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission, which is tasked with improving treatment services.

TONY VEZINA: Been in and out of jail since I was about 14. You know, my roots are from trailer parks in Pocatello, Idaho, history of crime and trauma and poverty in both sides of my family. You know, and I was a product of all that.

WESTERVELT: Vezina is now nine years sober from what he says was a crippling meth and heroin addiction. He founded and runs the state's first youth-centered recovery program, called 4th Dimension in Portland, which hosts daily recovery meetings.

MARCUS: Hello. My name is Marcus. And I am a recovering addict. What's up, guys? My clean date is...

WESTERVELT: The session on Wednesday is called Sounds of Recovery, encourages people to recite an original poem or maybe rap or play an original tune on the group's beat-up acoustic guitar.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing, playing guitar) Push these stones 'til the sweat turns into blood.

WESTERVELT: As Oregon's new drug policy commission chair, 4th Dimension Director Vezina says he's committed to having some tough conversations across a treatment community that remains divided over the way forward.

VEZINA: Now we need to rapidly design a new system strategically. But Oregon doesn't operate strategically around this. We don't have a new intervention system. We don't have a recovery-oriented system of care. We've just decriminalized.

WESTERVELT: So far, the nonprofit that runs Oregon's new 24/7 addiction help line says it's done just 29 health addiction screenings from calls from people cited for possession. But Tara Hurst, director of Oregon's Health Justice Recovery Alliance, isn't worried. It's very early days, and people need to see the big picture, Hurst says, and get to work helping make Oregon what she hopes will become a model for states looking to stop arresting and charging people with a substance use disorder.

TARA HURST: This could make or break the movement on some level if Oregon wasn't able to pull it together. And so I hope other states take notice, and they watch. And we're going to learn a lot.

WESTERVELT: And Multnomah County prosecutor Mike Schmidt says what Oregon was doing, merely tinkering with policy, just wasn't working.

SCHMIDT: Maybe there would have been a better way to glide path this on. But, sometimes, you just need to stop the way you're doing it to put some urgency behind fixing the systems that need to come into place.

WESTERVELT: So a bold, voter-mandated experiment is underway in Oregon, one treatment veterans hope they get right because, ultimately, it's an experiment with people's lives.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Portland, Ore.

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