Oregon’s Drug Recriminalization Bill Reaches Governor Tina Kotek

Oregon bill to recriminalize drugs heads to Gov. Tina Kotek

The fate of an Oregon bill aiming to reverse the state’s pioneering drug decriminalization law now rests in the hands of Democratic Governor Tina Kotek.

Although the bill, which seeks to reclassify possession of small amounts of drugs as a criminal offense, has not yet landed on Kotek’s desk, her office confirmed Monday that she will assess it upon its arrival. While Kotek has refrained from commenting on the bill since its passage on Friday, she had previously expressed willingness to consider it.

Back in January, prior to the commencement of the brief 35-day legislative session, Kotek emphasized her commitment to advancing bills that promise positive outcomes. She asserted, “If it’s a bill that I think will have the outcomes we need, I’m committed to making sure we can move forward.”

Kotek stressed the importance of addressing addiction and fostering pathways to recovery without politicizing the issue, underlining the necessity of comprehending the impacts of any legislative changes on the lives of Oregonians.

Gov. Tina Kotek
Gov. Tina Kotek (Credits: KTVL)

However, for advocacy groups championing social justice, the new bill signifies a significant setback. Imagine Black, an advocacy group based in Portland, expressed disappointment, feeling that lawmakers prioritized the perspectives of law enforcement over those of communities of color.

Danita Harris, the group’s deputy director of movement building, articulated the profound disappointment, stating, “This is an ache. It hurts in a very real way.”

The passage of Measure 110 by voters in 2020 marked a landmark moment, decriminalizing the possession of small quantities of illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. Proponents of the measure argued that treatment is more efficacious than incarceration in combating addiction, criticizing the longstanding practice of arresting individuals for drug possession and use as ineffective.

Under Measure 110, a substantial portion of the state’s cannabis tax revenue was earmarked for addiction services. However, the disbursement of funds was sluggish, exacerbated by the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the establishment of a new treatment system encountered hurdles, as noted by state auditors. Concurrently, the rise of the fentanyl crisis contributed to a surge in fatal overdoses.

While some researchers found no correlation between the law and the increase in fatal overdoses, others cautioned that it is premature to draw definitive conclusions. As Oregon witnessed one of the sharpest rises in overdose fatalities nationwide, Republican opposition to the law intensified, prompting a well-funded campaign advocating for a ballot measure to amend or repeal it.

Gov. Tina Kotek
Gov. Tina Kotek (Credits: Statesman Journal)

Faced with mounting political and public pressure, Democrats, who had historically supported the law, reversed their stance and ultimately consented to reinstating criminal penalties for personal use possession.

Nevertheless, certain Democratic lawmakers opposed the bill, expressing concerns that the policy would lead to more arrests and exacerbate social disparities. Senator Kayse Jama, a Democrat, voiced his dissent, stating, “This bill will have devastating impacts on communities of color and low-income Oregonians, burdening our already-strained justice system while failing to address the root causes of our addiction crisis.”

The newly approved bill reclassifies personal use possession as a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. It empowers law enforcement to clamp down on drug use in public spaces such as parks and aims to facilitate the prosecution of individuals involved in drug trafficking.

The bill introduces mechanisms for offering treatment as an alternative to criminal penalties. However, it only encourages, rather than mandates, law enforcement agencies to establish deflection programs redirecting individuals to addiction and mental health services instead of the criminal justice system.

Jama raised concerns about the potential inundation of Oregon’s legal system, which is already grappling with a severe shortage of public defenders with a surge of low-level possession cases.

An analysis shared with lawmakers by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission predicted that Black individuals would bear a disproportionate impact of possession convictions under the bill, although the racial disparity would be lesser compared to the years preceding decriminalization.

Despite reservations, the bill garnered bipartisan support, passing the state Senate by a vote of 21-8 and the state House by a margin of 51-7, with endorsement from both parties’ leadership.

Under Oregon’s legislative procedures, the governor has five business days to veto a bill once it reaches their desk. If the governor takes no action or signs the bill, it becomes law. However, if the Legislature adjourns before the five-day period elapses, the governor has 30 days to veto the bill.

As the legislative session draws to a close on Sunday, Kotek is anticipated to have an extended window to decide on a veto, given that she had yet to receive the bill as of Monday.

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