A hallway leads to patient bedrooms for the medically managed withdrawal program at Bridgeway in Salem. So far, state funding intended to help create more treatment services has done little (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Oregon has yet to spend nearly $300 million in tax revenue set aside for substance abuse treatment and recovery services under a voter-approved law intended to transform the state’s response to addiction.
So far not a single new treatment bed has been funded since Measure 110′s passage to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of heroin and other street drugs and set up a system to refer and treat those suffering from addiction.
By law, a citizen-led council is in charge of overseeing the distribution of the money to drug treatment and treatment-related services.
Originally, funding was supposed to start flowing to local organizations by the end of last year.
During an April 8 meeting, state public health officials said they plan to dole out some funding starting next month, though only to a handful of Oregon’s least populous counties.
They hope to get all grant funding out by October, they told those gathered.
That’s about two years after voters approved the ballot measure, which diverted hundreds of millions in cannabis tax revenue from schools, mental health services and Oregon State Police among others.
The council is supposed to oversee the process, but Tera Hurst, a representative of the major backers of the initiative, blamed the Oregon Health Authority, the state’s health department.
Hurst said agency officials have revised the grant timeline multiple times. Non-voting health authority officials on the panel should have lent more expertise and guidance, she said.
Council member Morgan Godvin told state health officials at the group’s recent April 8 meeting that the fumbled rollout was their fault. Godvin is an advocate for harm reduction, a public health approach that minimizes risks associated with drug use.
“I don’t know grant-making,” she said. “That was OHA’s duty, but you did not fulfill it and the goalposts just keep moving.”
“I have whiplash trying to keep up with this, but at no point do I hear an acceptance of responsibility from OHA saying we dropped the ball,” she said.
Steve Allen, the behavioral health director for the Oregon Health Authority and a member of the council, told the group that in terms of “lessons learned and mistakes made, we certainly have made our share of those so I am happy to be held accountable for all of that.”
Agency representatives this week did not respond to most questions from The Oregonian/OregonLive about the implementation of Measure 110. The health authority also declined to make any of its staff available for an interview.
A spokesperson for Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday said the governor did not appoint the council, does not oversee its work and referred questions about the rollout to the health authority.
Mike Marshall, executive director of Oregon Recovers, called the implementation process a “debacle” and blamed Brown and the health authority. Marshall’s organization advocates for treatment and recovery services for people experiencing addiction. He opposed Measure 110 but said he wants to see it successfully implemented.
“The governor should say, ‘Look, get this done, make this happen’ and instead she is completely hands off and says it’s not her responsibility because she doesn’t appoint members to the commission,” Marshall said.
“Organizations are not getting the resources they need to deal with this crisis because Gov. Brown won’t do her job, which is lead,” he said.
LAW PROMISED STATEWIDE TREATMENT NETWORK
The new law promised to treat addiction as a public health crisis instead of a criminal justice one, routing people experiencing addiction to treatment and away from courts and jail.
It reduced misdemeanor drug possession to a violation on par with a traffic offense. It applies to people with small amounts of drugs including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, LSD, psilocybin, methadone and oxycodone.
Instead of making an arrest, police in Oregon issue tickets to people found in possession of drugs. Those cited can either pay a fine of up to $100 or call a statewide hotline to complete a screening for a substance abuse disorder. They are not required to seek treatment.
The latest statistics compiled by the Oregon Judicial Department show police across the state have issued about 2,000 citations, mostly for methamphetamine and heroin, since the law went into effect in early 2021.
Of those, 91 people called the hotline and completed a screening.
The measure also promised to pour millions into community-based treatment and recovery services for Oregonians experiencing addiction. Those programs are supposed to range from peer support and housing to treatment beds in a state with soaring substance abuse rates and a dismal record on treatment access.
Though last year’s data on unintentional opioid overdose deaths in Oregon is still being tabulated, the state is on track to exceed each of the previous two years, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
Between January and August, 473 people in Oregon died from unintentional opioid overdoses.
Likewise, the number of opioid overdose visits to emergency departments last year is higher than each of the previous two years.
The prospect of significant investments in treatment and recovery services was a key part of proponents’ pitch to voters, who approved the measure 58.5% to 41.5% in November 2020.
The competition for those dollars is fierce.
Hurst said an estimated 330 organizations have asked for about $400 million – far more than is available under Measure 110. The state has about $270 million to hand out under Measure 110; grants will be made every biennium.
Hurst’s organization, the Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance, represents a coalition of state and national groups that supported Measure 110, including the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which state records show pumped about $5 million into the decriminalization campaign in Oregon.
The bulk of the April 8 meeting of the citizen-led council was mired in discussions how to review applications with one member, Caroline Cruz, characterizing the situation as “total chaos.”
Cruz, general manager for health and human services for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said the process that the 21-member council and the health authority developed is too unwieldy with about 300 factors to consider on each application.
“We set ourselves up for failure,” she said. “I don’t want to go blaming the Oregon Health Authority or blaming the council. It already happened. We have to figure out how to move forward.”
Council member Hubert Benny Mathews Jr., who campaigned for Measure 110, asked why the state had put small counties ahead of the most populous ones.
Health authority officials announced at the session that they had approved grants for the eastern Oregon counties of Morrow, Baker and Grant. A health authority representative on Tuesday did not respond to an email seeking details about those grants.
“It was supposed to help communities most impacted by the war on drugs,” Mathews said. “We should be getting to the counties that are the most impacted. The communities most impacted should be getting the funds out right now.”
Allen said the rural counties went first because there were fewer applications to process.
He went on to say the process for assessing grant applications for Multnomah County will be more complicated and time consuming.
Last year, the state handed out about $30 million in grants to treatment and service providers help get some of the expanded treatment services established.
Hurst said many of the organizations that received those initial grants are small and struggling to stay afloat as they wait for the state to issue the next round of grants for the services they provide.
“People are dying,” Hurst said. “That is not hyperbole. The community based providers that Measure 110 is supposed to be expanding are going to go out of business before you get his money out.”
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