Pubdate: Wed, 25 Nov 2020
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Donald Morrison


Now that Oregon voters have agreed to end nearly all criminal
penalties for drug possession, state officials have just over two
months to set up a new recovery-focused system, a task that is
particularly complicated due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Measure 110, which goes into effect Feb. 1, allows a maximum fine of
$100 for possession of drugs including heroin, cocaine and
methamphetamines along with a mandatory health assessment. The first
statewide law of its kind in the nation passed with support of 58% of
voters this month. It also mandates new recovery centers, paid for by
marijuana taxes and savings from less incarceration.

But people experienced in dealing with drug addiction say Oregon isn't
prepared to offer treatment to anyone caught in possession of an
illegal drug, especially in the midst of a pandemic that makes
in-person treatment harder at the same time that overdoses are rising.
State-funded addiction recovery centers will operate by phone only,
initially, with the first physical locations due to be operational by
next October.

"They'll tell you where to go but they will not offer treatment," said
Mike Marshall, executive director of Oregon Recovers, an advocacy
group for people in recovery. "And they will not provide any financial
assistance and they won't put you to the front of the line, which is
what a judge can do if you're in his court."

Drug overdose deaths rose in Oregon 70% in April and May compared with
the same months last year, according to the most recent data
available. More than 40 states have reported increases in
opioid-related deaths during the pandemic, according to the American
Medical Association.

Rebeka Gipson-King, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Health Authority,
said that the process of starting a new treatment center would usually
take at least 12 to 15 months. The state agency now has less than a
year to create a network of treatment centers.

"There's a dearth of qualified service providers in Oregon," Ms.
Gipson-King said. "So if people want to go into alcohol and drug
treatment work, now's the time to do it."

People experienced in dealing with addicts say that removing legal
consequences for drug possession will make it harder to motivate some
to seek treatment.

"If you don't pay the hundred-dollar fine, what are the consequences
for that?" said David Sanders, who has worked as an officer in the
Portland Police Bureau for a decade. "There are no consequences. That
will not act as a deterrent and is essentially worthless. Every cop
will tell you that."

Proponents of Measure 110 said that criminalizing addiction has been
ineffective in promoting recovery.

Mercedes Elizalde, public policy director for Central City Concern, a
nonprofit that fights homelessness, poverty and addiction in Oregon,
said the state isn't starting from scratch and a large portion of the
new money for treatment could be poured into providers that are
already operating.

"We're going to be able to take existing facilities and expand what
services are provided and expand their hours," Ms. Elizalde said.
"Plus, we're going to be able to use this funding to do things like
employment support and housing assistance."

Mr. Marshall, who opposed Measure 110, said that thanks to a 2017 law
that reduced drug-possession charges in Oregon to a misdemeanor from a
felony, most addicts don't go to jail now unless they have committed
other crimes or have been arrested multiple times for possession of
large amounts of drugs.

Nationwide, access to treatment is down due to the pandemic, with the
National Council for Behavioral Health reporting that 65% of its
members had to turn away patients because of Covid-19

For many drug-treatment centers, the number of inpatient beds
available was drastically limited by distancing guidelines. Large
numbers of outpatient treatment centers also moved online, with group
meetings being held over Zoom or getting canceled altogether.

Andre MacCracken, 29 years old, got sober through a program called
Turning Point, while serving a 24-month sentence in Oregon's Columbia
River Correctional Institute for crimes related to his addiction. He
was released in May.

"For me personally it didn't matter if the judge was telling me I had
to go to treatment," Mr. MacCracken said. "But I would say that prison
had some effect on me getting sober. It's a tricky question."