Democrats propose legislation to fix problems with Oregon’s drug decriminalization law

Oregon lawmakers and providers who serve people with drug and alcohol addictions have a common goal: making the state’s decriminalization drug law work. 

Measure 110, the state’s first-in-the-nation approach to drug addiction, has faced a rocky start since voters approved it in 2020, with a slow rollout of grants and confusion about the roles of the Oregon Health Authority and the oversight council charged with awarding grants to providers who offer treatment, counseling and peer services to people who cannot afford it. 

The measure decriminalized low-level drug possession and uses more than $100 million annually of cannabis tax revenue to get people treatment instead of a trip to jail. 

But Oregon remains awash in drugs and property crime is rampant, and a state audit found widespread problems with the roll out. 

A proposal, House Bill 2513, seeks to fix many of the measure’s problems that were flagged in the Secretary of State’s audit in January. 

Measure 110 created a new approach to dealing with the drug and addiction crisis that plagues Oregon. More than 60,000 Oregonians have used Measure 110 services, according to a state report. 

The bill would provide the oversight council with more staff and administrative help from the Oregon Health Authority, with clarified roles for the health authority and council members.  

The audit found the authority needed to provide more support to the oversight council and better coordination. At the time, state auditors concluded it was too soon to tell whether Measure 110 programs would stem the state’s addiction crisis, one of the worst in the nation. 

“We owe it to Oregonians to make sure that the voters that passed ballot measures are getting what they asked for in a more timely, transparent and accountable manner,” said Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland and chair of the House Committee on Behavioral Health and Health Care. 

The bill was discussed Tuesday in that committee and faces a vote on Monday. The measure will need approval from the Joint Ways and Means Committee, which decides on the budget. The bill’s costs are not yet calculated.

It would make a director, an employee of the Oregon Health Authority, responsible for ensuring the oversight council has the support it needs to make decisions about the program and grants for addiction services. That director would report to the behavioral health director of the health authority.

The bill also would make it easier for the oversight council to do its job, such as reduce the number of members needed to have a quorum and conduct business. The current two-thirds quorum would change to a simple majority. The oversight council is made up of members who have full-time jobs and other responsibilities and can’t always attend meetings. 

The bill would make the health authority responsible for writing rules about the program, such as grants. But the council would continue to have a role in determining grants. 

The bill drew widespread support at the hearing from advocates and providers and others. 

Ebony Clarke, behavioral health director of the Oregon Health Authority, said during Tuesday’s hearing she supports the bill. Clarke said the bill would create a “strong foundation” for developing addiction services statewide.

Ron Williams, a member of the oversight council, also spoke in support of the bill, saying it “makes Measure 110 stronger.” 

Tera Hurst, executive director of Health Justice Recovery Alliance, a statewide advocacy group that is watching the implementation of Measure 110, is on the council. She, too, supported the proposal. 

“We’ve landed on a place where we will see a better process, we will see a fairer process,” Hurst said. “We’ll be able to know who to hold accountable if and when things start going off the rails, which we didn’t have before and that was one of the problems.”

The bill includes an accountability measure. It calls for the next Secretary of State audit on the law’s implementation to be finished by the end of 2025, giving state officials enough time to gather data and see how the changes are working. 

Republican lawmakers filed several proposals this session to essentially eliminate Measure 110.

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Ben Botkin - Oregon Capital Chronicle

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.