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Oregon’s drug recriminalization bill sails through key committee, heads for House vote

Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. The capitol was completed in 1938.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021.

A bill rolling back Oregon’s pioneering drug decriminalization law is moving forward in the Legislature, after getting broad support from lawmakers in both parties.

In a brief hearing on Tuesday evening, a special committee passed out House Bill 4002 in a 10-2 vote. That outcome bodes well for the bill’s chances in the full House of Representatives, where it could get a vote later this week.

The vote held little of the passionate debate that has characterized discussion of the state’s addiction crisis and how to respond to it. Over hourslong hearings that began last fall, the committee has heard pleas from family members of drug users, police, business owners, advocates, attorneys and others to address the alarming impacts of fentanyl in the state. Often those testifying disagreed on the best course of action.

On Tuesday, members of the special Joint Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response were measured and in agreement that they needed to act — even if they weren’t aligned on the particulars.

“Everybody gave a little bit in this process,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, the Senate minority leader. “We always said that we wanted to have a bipartisan product and I think this is our best opportunity.”

The bill lawmakers landed on would end the state’s three-year experiment with decriminalization, in which being caught with small amounts of illicit drugs has been punishable by a ticket. The bill would instead make such low-level possession a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

Democrats who crafted the proposal say they’ve built in multiple opportunities for drug users to opt in to treatment in order to dodge criminal consequences and have their records automatically expunged. They’ve sold the bill as a way to give law enforcement more authority to combat public drug use, while at the same time prioritizing public health strategies.

“The ability to make this an unclassified misdemeanor has given us flexibility to send a message to our courts and our law enforcement partners, our [district attorneys] and our public defenders about what our expectation is,” said state Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend, a committee co-chair and an architect of the bill.

But to win support for their proposal from law enforcement, local governments and Republicans, Democrats had to make concessions that could lead to more severe criminal penalties than they initially proposed. That’s infuriated progressive advocacy groups, which have railed against the bill and see it as a return to the war on drugs that will disproportionately harm people of color.

Those arguments are bolstered by an analysis from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, which estimated that the law will lead to more than 2,200 criminal convictions for drug possession a year, with Black Oregonians overrepresented compared to their proportion of the population. White people would account for more than 83% of convictions, the estimate suggested.

The possibility of such discrepancies loomed large Tuesday evening. Rep. Andrea Valderrama, D-Portland, refused to support HB 4002.

“The disproportionate impact on my communities is ultimately too concerning for me to support the bill,” she said.

Another Portland Democrat, Rep. Tawna Sanchez, said she was also deeply concerned about the prospect of disparities, which was raised repeatedly by groups representing people of color. But she noted outcomes could be worse if lawmakers allow a ballot measure that would create stricter penalties to move forward.

“That doesn’t mean that at this moment in time where we are literally threatened with something worse that we sit and do nothing,” said Sanchez, who voted in favor of the bill. “Something has to happen.”

Sanchez said the Legislature must track state data, mandated by HB 4002, that would show whether the new criminal law isn’t being applied evenly.

The bill does far more than address drug possession. It would expand access to medications that treat opioid withdrawal, pay for new behavioral health services and help jails create drug treatment programs. It would also make it easier for prosecutors to seek harsh convictions for drug dealers.

One closely watched piece of the bill presses counties to create “deflection” systems in which they connect drug users to treatment instead of initiating criminal charges. As of Monday, 23 of Oregon’s 36 counties had signaled interest in doing so, including many of the most populous.

But the scale of that project prompted opposition from Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene. While he agreed with much of the bill, Prozanski said he worried the Legislature was moving too quickly. He said there was little sign there would be the treatment services in place to support the system HB 4002 envisions and noted that the state’s strained courts system was unlikely to be able to absorb additional criminal defendants.

“I cannot support the bill as it’s written because it doesn’t actually take the place of what I believe the voters wanted us to do,” Prozanski said. “They didn’t want us to use a sledgehammer to put in a finishing nail. They wanted us to fix Measure 110.”

In total, lawmakers haveproposed spending $211 million to implement the bill, money that would be divvied up between new treatment projects, specialty courts that address drug use, county addiction programs, probation officers, public defenders and more.

Kropf, the committee co-chair, held back tears as he recounted testimony the committee heard from people who’d lost family members and friends to overdoses, and from people who’ve found their way out of addiction.

“It’s a different approach,” he said of the bill. “And it’s a different approach that I’m committed to doing all I can in this role to make successful.”

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for KLCC. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.