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Oregon legislature backtracks on its progressive drug policy

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The most extensive experiment in the U.S. to decriminalize many drugs may be over. The Oregon state legislature has voted to overhaul the drug decriminalization measure that voters passed just a few years ago. The governor has indicated that she is open to signing the bill. Dirk VanderHart with Oregon Public Broadcasting joins us. Dirk, thanks so much for being with us.

DIRK VANDERHART, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

SIMON: Begin by telling us, please, what's in this new bill.

VANDERHART: Yeah, well, there's a lot in the bill. I mean, the reason you and I are talking about it is because of one specific piece that would make possessing small amounts of drugs a crime punishable by up to six months in jail. That is a stark difference from the law Oregon has operated under since 2021, when drug possession became a violation similar to a traffic ticket. But, you know, this is not merely Oregon reverting back to the old days. The Democrats who wrote this bill insist they're putting forward a sort of kinder, gentler approach to criminal justice. The bill offers drug users the option of avoiding a conviction if they agree to seek treatment. And even when people are put in jail under the bill, they could be released in order to participate in drug treatment. The other major thing the bill would do is expand access to addiction services for drug users in Oregon, which I think many people see as the most important piece.

SIMON: Oregonians voted to decriminalize drug possession in 2020. Already, right now, there's an overhaul. What happened?

VANDERHART: Yeah. I mean, I think a couple of things. You know, the first is that the system envisioned under that ballot measure you mentioned has been very slow to emerge. This was based on the idea that addiction should be addressed with health care rather than police and jails. But Oregon stumbled when it came to creating the treatment services that were necessary for that to happen. The second thing is that decriminalization really coincided with a growing fentanyl crisis. That's led to a surge of overdose deaths here. It's created public disorder, things like open drug use on the streets of Portland. That has convinced, I think, many people that things aren't working. And some of the state's richest people have begun backing a ballot measure to end decriminalization. That, I think, put a lot of pressure on lawmakers to act, since many of them thought that measure would be harmful.

SIMON: Was there opposition?

VANDERHART: There was. You know, this has been a very hard-fought debate here and I think an extremely tough call for many Democrats in particular. One senator said yesterday, there are hard votes, harder votes, and then there was this vote. But lawmakers wound up supporting it anyway. Republicans have wanted to end decriminalization for years now. They argue criminal consequences are necessary to fight addiction. Democrats have been far more wary, as I say. But in the end, I think they were moved by the threat of that ballot measure. And meanwhile, advocacy groups and some drug treatment providers have been very adamant that this decision is a mistake for Oregon. They believe the state is retreating back to a failed war on drugs. And they can credibly point to numbers that suggest it will be felt disproportionately by people of color.

SIMON: What happens next?

VANDERHART: Well, the bill moves on to Oregon's Democratic governor, Tina Kotek. She doesn't like to show her cards when it comes to bills. She hasn't done that entirely at this point. But she has, as you say, said she's open to signing it. I think she's widely expected to sign it.

Assuming that happens, there are big questions about how this new law will mean going forward - what it means. You know, criminal consequences would kick in in September. The state estimates show that they are likely to funnel more than a thousand people into the criminal justice system every year. That is certain to create issues in Oregon, which has a pretty severe public defender shortage. And I don't think it will just be the courts. You know, this is a brand-new system that would be implemented here. I think everyone expects it could get a little rocky.

SIMON: Dirk VanderHart with OPB, thanks so much for being with us.

VANDERHART: Yeah. It's my pleasure, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Dirk VanderHart