Lawmakers mull solutions to drug crisis, prep for 2024 session

Ben Botkin
Oregon Capital Chronicle

Opinions are sharply divided on the issue, and a committee tasked with coming up with fixes has yet to finalize its plans

Oregon lawmakers heard ideas on Wednesday about how to address the state’s drug addiction crisis at the State Capitol in Salem. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
Oregon lawmakers are preparing a slew of potential changes to address the state’s fentanyl-fueled drug addiction and overdose crisis.
Before the short five-week legislative session starts Feb. 5, the committee charged with finding solutions for the state’s drug addiction crisis will release a framework of ideas to consider. The committee met Wednesday but it has not finalized or detailed any proposals yet.
Lawmakers said they will address a range of issues, including potentially adopting tougher penalties for dealers that poison Oregon streets with fentanyl and other hard drugs, and how to get the court system more involved. They’re also looking at ways to curb drug addiction, address problems with Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, along with prevention of drug use and addiction — especially for youth — and how to bolster the state’s behavioral health workforce to expand treatment options.
“We may have differing thoughts on how best to prevent drug addiction and get people treatment when they need it, but we agree we need a range of services along the continuum of care and immediate and long-term solutions,” said Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend and co-chair of the Joint Interim Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response. “Everyone’s pathway to recovery looks different, we need to make sure our system offers a variety of entry points – many of which already exist but need to be strengthened.”
One proposal, first reported by The Oregonian/Oregonlive and confirmed in conversations with legislative sources, would recriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs, making them class C misdemeanors. Oregon voters in 2020 passed Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of hard drugs and put a portion of cannabis revenue toward addiction services and programs. A class C misdemeanor can carry up to 30 days in jail or a fine of up to $1,250 or both.
The idea is still preliminary and it may not end up in a bill, legislative sources familiar with the talks told the Capital Chronicle. Under the concept, a person found with drugs could still avoid the misdemeanor charge if they get help and talk to a provider about treatment and other services like food and housing.
If they did not get help, and the charge were to progress to the courts, they could still get the case discharged before trial if they entered a program. For cases that ended up going to trial, people would be more likely to enter specialty drug courts to get help with their recovery. Expungements could also be easier

The idea, while just a concept, has drawn a fiery rebuke from advocates who are urging Oregon lawmakers to give Measure 110 a chance to succeed.
Oregonians for Safety & Recovery, a coalition of Measure 110 supporters, said in a statement that any legislative action to criminalize drug addiction would be cruel and a failure of leadership.
“We cannot regress back to the failed war on drug tactics that harm Black, brown, and poor people and make drug addiction, overdose deaths and homelessness more difficult and expensive to solve,” said the coalition, which includes the ACLU of Oregon and Health Justice Recovery Alliance, whose members include organizations that receive Measure 110 funding to run programs and services.
Lawmakers didn’t detail that proposal at the committee meeting on Wednesday, but heard presentations from professionals and affected people.
Kropf said the goal is to get the public a framework of proposals in advance of the short session.
Here’s a look at some of the ideas lawmakers heard:
Youth addiction and prevention
Jon Epstein urged lawmakers to look at a coordinated way to focus on preventing youth drug use and overdoses. Epstein’s son, Cal Epstein, died of fentanyl poisoning in 2020 when he mistakenly took a fake blue pill while on a break home from college. He believed it was OxyContin, but it was fentanyl, which is more than 100 times more powerful than morphine.
His parents, Jon and Jennifer Epstein, advocated a prevention program in Beaverton School District, their son’s district. They also worked with state lawmakers last year to pass a bill that will put fentanyl prevention in schools statewide. Jon Epstein said Wednesday that more coordination is necessary.
The state needs a prevention structure that has authority across multiple organizations, including education, the justice system and health authority – with accountability, he said.
“There is no ownership for prevention in Oregon,” Epstein told lawmakers.
Epstein said schools across Oregon would like to do more to educate students about the harms of drugs but have an “awful lot on their plates” and don’t have partners to work alongside in a coordinated way.
Lawmakers said prevention needs to be a core part of the state’s approach to addiction.

“We will not be able to afford the treatment system that we need until we start investing in prevention,” said Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, co-chair of the committee, which includes five Democrats and three Republicans. Wednesday’s meeting in the Capitol was its fourth.

Republicans on the committee said Measure 110 is a failure and widespread changes are needed.

“Measure 110 is a failure on many fronts, but today’s hearing confirmed that it directs too few of its resources to prevention and recovery,” Rep. Christine Goodwin, R-Canyonville, said in a statement. “As a former teacher, I was especially shocked to hear from parents who say even those scarce resources never make it to youth users or schools.”

Goodwin and some other Republicans have called for a repeal of Measure 110.
Other ideas

Officials with the state’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission recommended lawmakers consider steps to advance prevention, treatment, recovery and harm reduction.

Those include:

A substance use prevention coordinator in every county and tribe to work with local organizations and be a point person to focus efforts.  
More access to medication for opioid addiction at different points, including emergency departments, prisons and jails and residential facilities. 
Better access and expanded recovery housing for people.
A statewide strategy to purchase and deploy naloxone, which reverses opioid overdoses and saves lives.

Providers also face a web of regulations, heavy administrative burdens and challenges filling openings. Tony Vezina, chair of the commission, said he’s talked to providers in Oregon who are hesitant to expand.

“They’re unwilling to expand capacity because they’re concerned about their ability to sustain it,” he said.

Lawmakers also heard from United We Heal, a partnership of AFSCME Council 75 and behavioral health providers. The group wants lawmakers to allocate $4.7 million in state Medicaid funding to the Oregon Health Authority for workforce training to quickly expand the pool of qualified employees.

The funding would generate $11.5 million in federal matching dollars and provide the state the ability to train more than 400 new behavioral health workers, the group said