Oregon Governor Criminalizes Drug Possession, Reverses Lax Policies

Oregon’s Democratic Governor Tina Kotek has signed legislation reversing the state’s voter-approved measure that lowered penalties for possession of drugs, including heroin. Since the decriminalization plans were passed with public approval, overdose rates have skyrocketed, including a 210% rise in Fentanyl-related deaths. Governor Kotek declared a state of emergency in Portland in January as the impact there became clear.

The Governor decided to reserve the liberal policies after meeting with representatives of the corrections department, police, attorneys, and community leaders. In a subsequent statement, she said, “Success of this policy framework hinges on the ability of implementing partners to commit to deep coordination.”

The legislative reversal will take effect in September, and personal drug possession or usage will become a misdemeanor carrying a potential six-month prison term. Police can also confiscate the narcotics and crack down on public use. It will only apply, however, to harder drugs such as heroin and will not affect the current status of cannabis.

State Senator Kate Lieber spearheaded the change, having chaired a newly formed committee addressing addiction. The panel invited testimony from several law enforcement officers and drug abuse experts, some of whom testified that liberalization has made matters worse for addicts and the wider public.

Under the new measures, offenders will still be offered treatment options, but data shows this was ineffective under the liberal regime. For example, figures from February 2022 showed that only 1% of addicts had sought treatment via a state-provided helpline over the previous 12 months. Under the new program, addicts will not be charged if they attend treatment appointments, but if they fail to show up, they’ll be referred to the District Attorney’s office. Senator Lieber described this as a compromise between treatment and accountability.

Republicans have slammed the new laws, saying they are insufficient. House GOP leader Jeff Helfrich said it is the end of Oregon’s “experiment with decriminalizing hard drugs.” He added, “Make no mistake, this bill is not enough to undo the disaster.”