Oregon decriminalized drugs 2 years ago. What can BC learn from its rocky start?

Oregon has scrambled to reduce users and overdose deaths on the streets of Portland, despite decriminalizing personal possession of all hard drugs in 2021.  Delays in funding treatment services and the challenge of putting together a system that a drug user can easily access were also significant barriers, according to an audit.  (Andrew Lee/CBC - photo credit)

Oregon has scrambled to reduce users and overdose deaths on the streets of Portland, despite decriminalizing personal possession of all hard drugs in 2021. Delays in funding treatment services and the challenge of putting together a system that a drug user can easily access were also significant barriers, according to an audit. (Andrew Lee/CBC – photo credit)

Police have discovered Charles Laprain with powdered fentanyl in a Portland, Oregon parking lot. Two years ago that would have been a crime.

Instead, Portland Police Officer David Baer writes him a $100 ticket, which could be waived if Laprain calls the recovery hotline on the back of the subpoena.

Which, he admits, he does 50/50.

“It gives a person more chances of at least getting clean,” he said late January afternoon. “It’s no good if people are locked up.”

Interactions like this have happened to Baer every day since Oregon introduced Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of all hard drugs in the state in February 2021.

He was surprised to find out that British Columbia has also recently moved to eliminate criminal penalties for personal property, and says there may be unforeseen challenges.

“You’re going to see an increase in public drug use,” Baer said.

Oregon, for example, saw a 52 percent increase in opioid deaths in the first year of its new measure and has struggled to gain adequate access to treatment options — a challenge BC is already facing.

Georgie Smyth/CBC

Georgie Smyth/CBC


It’s “too early to tell” how this health-based approach to drug use is working in Oregon, according to a review of the initiative by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office released last month.

Measure 110, voted for by 58 percent of Oregon residents in 2020, means that public use of drugs is still illegal, but possession is not.

Rather than being treated as criminals, users are guided through information on the back of citation to treatment options funded with over $135 million in diverted tax revenue from the state’s legalized cannabis sales.

But as the state has found out, not many people are calling for help. The hotline, which is designed to connect drug users to services, received just 119 calls at a cost of over $9,200 per call in June last year, according to the audit.

According to the report, delays in funding treatment services, confusion in program administration, and trying to put together a system that a drug user can easily access were also significant obstacles.

Andrew Lee/CBC

Andrew Lee/CBC

Those are the kind of challenges British Columbia, which in January became the first jurisdiction in Canada to decriminalize 2.5 grams or less of opioids, cocaine, meth and ecstasy, could learn from, says Tera Hurst of Oregon’s Health Justice Recovery Initiative, an advocacy group Coalition that advocated Measure 110.

While there are a number of differences that set Oregon and BC decriminalization efforts apart, such as Canada’s program is only a three-year process, both vanguard jurisdictions share the grim reality that they each have one of the highest national concentrations of drug use and deaths Overdose have respective country.

This made those involved impatient for solutions that would work quickly.

But as Hurst, who is also a recovering addict, told CBC News, solving addiction and drug use in society is complex and not quick, despite the high stakes for Oregon to succeed as an example in North America.

“We can serve as either a model of why you should do it or a model of why we can never do it,” she said.

deaths are increasing

However, figures show that in 2021, the year decriminalization went into effect, Oregan had more opioid overdose deaths than in the previous two years. according to Oregon Public Health Surveillance.

Statistics for 2022 are still being compiled, but some critics are already calling for the measures to be abolished and the money to be invested elsewhere.

Decriminalization advocates there say the program needs more time to succeed, and the increase in deaths has coincided with a national rise in overdose and drug toxicity deaths across the states.

Andrew Lee/CBC

Andrew Lee/CBC

On its path to decriminalization, Health Canada has made no secret of studying through various task forces how other jurisdictions have enforced alternatives to criminal sanctions.

Geographically, Portland is perhaps Canada’s finest example of drug decriminalization, but certainly not the most prominent. Portugal, which was once the worst country in Europe for drug use and deaths, began decriminalizing all drugs in 2001. Overdose deaths and drug use rates fell. Since then, they have consistently been below the EU average.

But solving substance use disorders and drug use elsewhere in the world isn’t just a matter of copying and pasting the Portuguese model — as Oregon now knows.

Further treatment approaches are still required

A big difference between the European country and the US state is the access to health care. Portugal has universal healthcare, like Canada, while the US does not. So implementing the model in Oregon required building an expanded detoxification and treatment system that hadn’t previously existed, causing friction and delays in implementation, Hurst says.

“We’re bumping into all the walls and finding all the different barriers that are out there and trying to figure out how to get around them,” she said.

A board of directors that included people with lived recovery experiences has helped direct grants to community groups across the state tasked with providing services such as addiction screening and referral, housing and case management. At least one of these groups must exist in each county or tribal area under the policy.

Andrew Lee/CBC

Andrew Lee/CBC

Despite the investment, Oregon still ranks 50th in the US for access to treatment. An analysis of supply gaps in 2022 shows that Oregon would need to double its current supply to meet demand.

In British Columbia, it can take up to four weeks for a person to get into detox, “an eternity for someone who uses drugs,” said Dr. Paxton Bach, Co-Medical Director at the BC Center on Substance Use (BCCSU). .

The transition from that program to bed-based treatment could take months, Bach says, potentially leaving users in vulnerable limbo.

But Canada’s Minister of Mental Health and Addiction, Carolyn Bennett, touring Oregon in August 2022, says there are lessons for BC in Oregon’s approach — specifically, funding a variety of community-based treatment organizations “to develop the kind of.” trusting relationships that allow people to think about a different life.”

build up trust

Located in a park in north Portland, O’Nesha Cochrane-Dumas is a person who represents this space between addiction and recovery.

She is an outreach counselor at Miracles Club, a community center that caters to African American drug users in Oregon. Blacks and people of color are disproportionately affected by drug policies such as the War on Drugs, and in Oregon, blacks are four times more likely to end up in prison, according to the U.S. Census and Justice Department.

Andrew Lee/CBC

Andrew Lee/CBC

Cochrane Dumas was there. She started using drugs at age 13, committed petty theft, had sex to survive, and served three prison sentences before getting clean. She’s now doing her public relations work at the park where she used to get high, handing out brand new shirts, socks and harm reduction kits containing life-saving naloxone in this mostly black neighborhood.

The work is subtle and funded by Measure 110. Cochrane-Dumas says it’s about building connections with drug users in the places where they are. The hope is that when users are ready, they will be more likely to ask for help from someone who has already helped them.

“They always know I have something for them. They’re dying to see me,” she said.

“One day they’re going to have problems and they’re going to be like, ‘Ay-o, how can I get help? I’m tired of doing this.’”

frustrating reality

But as David Baer sees, sometimes that revelation doesn’t happen. When he hands out subpoenas for drug possession, people usually crumple them up and throw them out, he says.

While driving with CBC News, he is called to an overdose a block away. A young man lies unconscious on a sidewalk and has just been given naloxone to reverse the effects of the opioids he is taking. When the man comes to, the paramedics tell Baer they did the same thing for him twice the day before.

It’s a frustrating reality of addiction that repeats itself multiple times a day on Baer’s shift.

“I’ve known this guy for three years and I’ve obviously seen his downfall,” he said. “He used to do meth and now he’s out here every day taking fentanyl.”

Down the block, Stephen Deloriea is also using fentanyl and meth to help manage his anxiety. He speaks softly and has been living on the streets of Portland for a year.

Georgie Smyth/CBC

Georgie Smyth/CBC

In his hands he holds a tarpaulin, which he uses to carry his belongings, including cans, which he collects to trade for drugs. He used to be afraid of getting in trouble with the police, likening it to being “a bad kid” being dragged into the principal’s office. Now he has more time to take care of his “own problems,” he says.

Despite slow progress on other measures, his story suggests that one goal of decriminalization is changing: the stigma to break down addiction.

“It’s easier to function without worrying about being a criminal.”


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