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Oregon legislature votes to recriminalize drugs

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Oregon is in the midst of overhauling the most progressive drug policy in U.S. history. Voters in the state decriminalized drugs back in 2020 through a ballot measure. But today, the state legislature passed a new bill which, among other things, recriminalizes drug possession. The governor is expected to sign it. And here to tell us more is Dirk VanderHart, the state government reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Welcome.

DIRK VANDERHART, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. So just remind us - how did we get to this point?

VANDERHART: Well, that 2020 ballot measure you mentioned was really sold on the premise that the war on drugs had failed and that addressing addiction through a public health approach was a better way to help people. But I think problems emerged pretty quickly. The state had a really hard time standing up treatment services promised by the measure. Meanwhile, at the same time, there's been, you know, a growing fentanyl crisis that has led to surging overdoses and a lot of quality-of-life issues here, like public drug use in Portland. That's got a lot of voters very displeased, and some of the state's richest people have actually been pushing a new ballot measure that would have rolled back most of the decriminalization law. I think that put a lot of pressure on lawmakers to act.

CHANG: Well, what's exactly in this bill the state Senate just passed?

VANDERHART: You know, it's a big bill. There's a lot in there. The most closely watched aspect is that, rather than getting a ticket that really had no consequences, users possessing small amounts of drugs could face up to six months in jail. That's just one piece. The Democratic lawmakers who wrote this bill argue it maintains the compassionate approach voters said they wanted in 2020. So people who are caught with drugs are expected to have multiple opportunities to accept treatment. Rather than criminal penalties or sentence to jail, they could be released early in order to participate in drug treatment. Lawmakers are also really keen on expanding treatment services here.

CHANG: OK, well when this passed, how much support did it have?

VANDERHART: Yeah, I mean, it passed by wide margins in the legislature. Republicans here have been calling to roll back decriminalization for years. They're happy. They think the state needs to create consequences for drug addiction to help steer people to help. I think Democrats had misgivings but got on board because they were really worried about that ballot measure I mentioned. But in the - at the same time, there was a very robust campaign against this bill by advocacy groups who were really adamant that lawmakers should not retreat to a war on drugs that hasn't worked. I think, in particular, they worry that having this new crime on the books will disproportionately impact communities of color. That's certainly been the case with drug enforcement here in the past.

CHANG: That is Dirk VanderHart of OPB. Thank you so much, Dirk.

VANDERHART: Yeah, my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Dirk VanderHart

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