Oregon governor to sign bill re-criminalizing possession of certain drugs into law

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek will sign new legislation that makes possession of a small amount of drugs such as fentanyl and heroin a misdemeanor in the state, moving to recriminalize such substances roughly three years after the state became the first in the nation to decriminalize the possession and personal use of all drugs, according to a statement from the Democratic governor.

House Bill 4002 reverses portions of Measure 110, a 2020 voter ballot initiative that relaxed certain penalties for drug possession. The new bill overwhelmingly cleared both chambers of the state legislature with bipartisan support late last week.

“I intend to sign House Bill 4002 and the related prevention and treatment investments within the next 30 days,” Kotek’s statement indicated, adding her focus will be on careful implementation of the law, particularly noting concerns by some advocates that the bill disproportionately impacts communities of color.

“House Bill 4002 will require persistent action and commitment from state and local government to uphold the intent that the legislature put forward: to balance treatment for individuals struggling with addiction and accountability,” she said.

Under the law, offenders could face up to six months in jail, or, in place of criminal penalties, elect to undergo drug treatment. The penalties for unlawful drug possession will take effect on September 1.

In January, Kotek joined local officials in declaring a fentanyl state of emergency in downtown Portland.

“Our country and our state have never seen a drug this deadly and addictive, and all are grappling with how to respond,” she said in a news release, vowing “unprecedented collaboration and focused resources” ahead of a “roadmap for next steps.”

Opioid deaths in Oregon have tripled between 2019 and 2022, with many of the deaths attributed to the rise in fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid.

In 2020, Oregon voters moved to decriminalize various hard drugs – including fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine – when Measure 110 was approved with 58.5% of the vote. It took effect in February 2021.

Under the measure, possession of small amounts of the drugs was no longer punishable by jail time and carried penalties more akin to a traffic ticket. It also expanded access to addiction assistance and other health services.

While an early study suggests there was no link between Measure 110 and fatal overdoses in Oregon after one year, critics of the ballot initiative have continued to blast its enactment, blaming it for the fentanyl crisis and climbing overdose deaths that followed.

“You look at what has happened: open fentanyl, open drugs on the streets,” said Republican state Rep. Jeff Helfrich, adding, “(Measure) 110 is an unmitigated disaster.”

As such, backers of HB4002 had celebrated the step toward rolling back aspects of the state’s previous decriminalization effort.

“Though lawmakers will have much more to do in future sessions to continue making progress on the fentanyl-fueled drug overdose and addiction crisis facing our state, I was proud to stand on the right side of history by casting my vote in favor for HB 4002,” Senate Republican leader Tim Knopp said in a statement at the time of the bill’s passage.

“Passing this bill will put Oregon on a path to recovery and signifies and end to the nationwide decriminalization movement,” he said.

Critics of the bill, however, argued that recriminalization would disproportionately harm communities of color.

“It is not enough to monitor the system when we know it is a system that has bias built into it,” said Jennifer Parrish Taylor, the director of advocacy and public policy at Urban League of Portland. “I fear that we will be back next year, hearing those stories of harm, figuring out how to make our communities whole.”

This story is breaking and will be updated.

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