Tim Murphy, CEO of Bridgeway Recovery Services, points out photos of several of the organization's facilities on Wednesday, April 22. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Prosecutors and police in Marion and Polk counties have just two months to change how they handle drug crimes after Oregon voters overwhelmingly decided to decriminalize possession of small quantities of drugs.

A new law created by Measure 110, which takes effect Feb. 1, will make possession of user amounts of drug including heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, and ecstasy punishable by a $100 fine. That would be waived if the person opts instead for a health evaluation.

Previously, possessing small amount of drugs was a misdemeanor crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $6,250. Now, it will be classified as a violation.

Many local law enforcement officials publicly opposed the change and say they’re now concerned it will limit their ability to force users into treatment through diversion programs tied to arrests. They say the public should brace for more property crime and addiction.

“This whole measure is going to make more work for us,” said Mark Garton, Polk County sheriff.

He said the change means police no longer will be able to search vehicles if they see drugs inside to determine if larger quantities are hidden away.

“That’s going to be a big deal,” he said. “We’re not going to catch people who are up to no good.”

Lt. Debbie Aguilar, Salem Police Department police spokeswoman, said the Marion County District Attorney’s Office is working on a briefing for police officers to explain how police tactics will have to change.

Aguilar said her department focuses more effort on people dealing large amounts of drugs.

She said people caught with user quantities of drugs – considered a handful of doses - aren’t arrested and taken to jail but cited to appear in court. She also noted that people are usually charged with additional crimes beyond just possession.

“For the street cop, they generally aren’t out finding people with just a possession charge. It’s usually attached to something else,” she said.

Still, hundreds of people are arrested each year in Marion and Polk counties for drug possession only, Oregon Criminal Justice Commission data shows.

In 2019, the commission recorded 329 arrests for possession of a controlled substance in Marion County and 86 in Polk County with no other charges listed on the arrest, according to data provided to Salem Reporter. Those numbers include arrests where another criminal justice issue, like an outstanding warrant or traffic stop, may have sparked the contact that led to an arrest.

Anthony Johnson, a co-petitioner for Measure 110 and former defense attorney, said the measure was intended to move Oregon away from treating drug addiction as a crime and instead treat it as a health issue. 

Johnson said Oregon has been arresting more than 8,000 people each year for possessing minor amounts of drugs. He said those arrests resulted in 4,000 convictions.

“And those convictions have serious consequences on employment, housing, education. Oftentimes those low-level drug possession convictions ensnare people into the criminal justice world where they can’t get a job. They violate their probation and they don’t get the treatment they need,” he said.

Johnson said people of color are more likely to be convicted on drug charges and face harsher punishment.

But he said he’s heard the same fears about decriminalizing drugs as were expressed six years ago as voters considered legalizing marijuana.

“People are going to see that the sky is not going to fall. This is going to be a better and humane policy. People are going to be encouraged by the fact that we no longer are going to treat our loved ones with addiction as criminals,” he said.

Tim Murphy, chief executive officer of Bridgeway Recovery Services in Salem, said he supports treating drug addiction as a health problem. 

He’s seen the way criminal records for drug crimes can trap clients trying to find housing and jobs. He said while drug court has helped some Bridgeway clients who otherwise resist treatment, he doesn’t think using arrests to force people into treatment is effective in many cases.

But he ended opposed the change because he said the funding portion of the law is murky and doesn’t guarantee more treatment resources.

The measure requires new “addiction recovery centers” be set up around the state, with at least one in the service area for each existing Oregon Health Plan network. That would mean at least one center in Marion or Polk County.

Those centers, funded by the tax on marijuana, would be open to people who might previously have been arrested for possessing drugs. Instead of paying the new fine, they could chose assessment and get a referral to treatment.

But Murphy said that does nothing to treat the root problem: Oregon doesn’t have enough spots for people who need intensive help to beat addictions.

A Criminal Justice Commission report found Marion County had just 34 residential treatment beds in March 2019 - about one for every 10,000 county residents. Inpatient drug treatment means people live on-site while receiving therapy and other help to stop using drugs.

“We don’t have an assessment problem and we don’t have a referral problem in Oregon. We do have a treatment problem in Oregon because we don’t have enough treatment beds,” he said.

Bridgeway operates three inpatient programs with eight beds each, and Murphy said the pandemic has forced the program to close. Even before, a wait of weeks to get help wasn’t uncommon, though people can receive outpatient help while waiting.

The measure authorizes grants for treatment providers to expand treatment services, but there’s no budget set. That money comes out of the marijuana tax fund currently being used for schools and other health programs.

While such tax revenue is projected to grow, Murphy is concerned about dipping into it.

He said it’s possible Bridgeway would seek grant money when it becomes available, but said he’s concerned about the lack of specificity in the law.

“Legislation gets squishy when it’s not really clean and clear and direct. We’ve seen that with tobacco dollars that came from the federal government,” he said.

Paige Clarkson, Marion County district attorney, said the reform eliminates the criminal justice lever that compels people to get treatment. 

In an opinion piece ahead of the election, Clarkson and Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast said the measure would dismantle specialty courts set up to address addiction. 

Both the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police and Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association made similar arguments ahead of the election, stating the measure would reduce or eliminate specialty courts and diversion programs. 

Clarkson said in an email that she believes the measure will harm those programs, but that impact remains to be seen. She said drug court will continue in Marion County.

She said for years Marion County has prioritized treatment over criminalization of drug possession.

“We have several programs that connect people to treatment, specialty courts, mentoring and counseling once they have entered the justice system,” she wrote. “In these cases, the criminal justice system has served as powerful motivation for individuals to choose to get healthy. Most of the people involved in those programs receive dismissals or violation treatment should they be successful. In the vast majority of cases, they never do any jail time. Not one day.”

Clarkson said her office is having planning meetings to determine how those cases will proceed through the courts once the new law takes effect. 

Aaron Felton, Polk County district attorney, said at this stage he hasn’t decided how he is going to handle drug violations.

“It’s going to take quite some time to unspool this,” he said.

Felton said he’s working with members of the local treatment community to see if Polk County can get a head start on new treatment referrals.

He said he will fight for drug court to continue because it works for the high-risk offenders it was designed to handle. He said some benefit from the rigid structure and intense supervision provided by that program. 

Eric Deitrick, general counsel with the state Office of Public Defense Services, said there are so many drug cases that there aren’t enough prosecutors and defense attorneys to keep up.

He said over the past generation, Oregon has cut funding for mental health and chemical dependency programs, leaving the justice system to deal with people dealing with drug addiction.

“From a societal standpoint when you’re dealing with addiction do you want the frontline response to be lawyers and judges? We’ve been doing this approach for some time and we haven’t seen much success with it,” he said. 

Murphy said he shares some of the law enforcement concerns about the measure leading to increased drug use. Absent expanded treatment, he’s concerned the law will lead people to simply pay a fine and keep using drugs, and that drugs will become more widely available in Salem, leading to more overdoses.

He said that’s a common concern among health care providers who currently treat addiction.

Still, Murphy understands why people voted for the measure, and he agrees with its supporters that Oregon’s current approach hasn’t worked well to end addiction. He hopes legislators next year might make treatment beds more widely available and allow people to expunge drug convictions.

“I understand trying to do it differently and I support doing it differently. I don’t know the answer because if I knew the answer, I would have done it years ago,” he said.

Janie Gullickson, executive director of the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon based in Portland and a co-petitioner of Measure 110, said the long-term hope is that it will change how people look at those who are struggling with addiction and allow for intervention sooner.

“That’s the ultimate change that we’ll see is that it will be thought of as more of a health condition rather than a moral failing,” she said. 

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]ter.com. Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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