In Oregon, debate continues on state’s 180 on drug decriminalization

Despite new legislation walking back key parts of Oregon’s drug decriminalization pilot, the issue remains a hot topic of debate in the state.

The move comes as conversations about British Columbia’s similar initiative grow increasingly political.

Levi Martinez owns Orox Leather Goods in downtown Portland.

Click to play video: 'Oregon warns B.C. about drug decriminalization'

Oregon warns B.C. about drug decriminalization

He believes Oregon’s voter-approved Measure 110, which replaced charges for drug possession with a $100 citation that could be waived by calling a drug treatment hotline, is behind worsening street disorder in the city.

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“Before, it used to be present but it wasn’t so plainly obvious. Now it looks like it’s just a free-for-all,” he told Global News.

Martinez believes Measure 110, passed in 2020, made it harder to keep people from using drugs in front of his business, which contributed to customers keeping away.

“As years and months have gone by you kinda see that there is more drug use in the area,” he said.

Andrew Hoan, president and CEO of the Portland Metro Chamber, said Measure 110 was a case of “good intentions and poor execution.”

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“Measure 110 at the time was our understanding of how do we reduce the impact of over-criminalizing people who are addicted and offering substance services that we know they need,” he said.

“That didn’t work out … you can decriminalize hard drugs but if you don’t have complementary services brought on at the same time, you are putting people, individuals, communities at risk.”

Click to play video: 'Oregon votes to recriminalize drug possession -will this impact B.C.?'

Oregon votes to recriminalize drug possession -will this impact B.C.?

Hoan said no one in Oregon wants to go back to the “war on drugs,” but that something needed to change to address concerns about public safety with the decriminalization approach.

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Last month, a bipartisan majority of Oregon state legislators passed HB 4002, which created a unique new misdemeanor offence for simple possession.

Under the new offence, the default penalty is probation with mandatory addiction treatment and no jail time or fines. Drug users can face up to six months in jail if they break probation, but all criminal records are expunged within at least three years.

But the changes have not been universally embraced. Social justice advocates and groups like the ACLU of Oregon argue the new measures will end up targeting people of colour and the homeless.

Tera Hurs with the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, who helped lead the effort to implement decriminalization, says the state never actually gave the program a chance to work. She said opposition from police, big business and politicians ultimately sabotaged the idea.

“Ultimately I think people need to understand this is political,” she said.

“This is not a policy failure, the rolling back of decriminalization is because it was never implemented.”

Click to play video: 'Data from B.C. drug decriminalization pilot released'

Data from B.C. drug decriminalization pilot released

Hurst said the program did help some people get into treatment. She argued many more could have been helped if the funding needed to implement decriminalization properly had been rolled out more quickly.

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She urged B.C. not to give up on the idea.

“Keep going, keep doing what you’re doing, and making fixes along the way,” she said.

“This is not the wrong path, we’re on the right path.”

On the streets of Portland, the verdict was less clear. No one Global News spoke with on a recent visit to the city had tried to get into the treatment programs, while some suggested decriminalization was drawing drug users or criminal gangs from other communities.

Back in British Columbia, Premier David Eby has vowed to stay the course with the program, now in the second year of a planned three-year pilot, but has conceded it needs to “respond and evolve” to public concerns.

B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions is slated to meet with her federal counterpart and police next week to discuss the decriminalization program and concerns around safe supply.

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