Participants in an Oregon Recovers rally hold signs while listening to a speaker outside the Oregon Capitol building in Salem, Oregon, on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. (Connor Radnovich/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
People from around Oregon brought their heartaches and triumphs in the state’s drug and alcohol addiction crisis to the Capitol on Wednesday.
Many stories were shared: A partner lost to a fentanyl overdose. A son forced to move out-of-state to find drug addiction treatment. A legislator who has stayed sober for nearly half a century.
More than 200 people gathered outside the Capitol for a rally to raise awareness about Oregon’s addiction crisis, which has affected thousands and included young and old and residents of urban and rural areas. The event, organized by the Portland-based advocacy group Oregon Recovers, was held amid grim data: The state has the highest rate of illicit drug use nationwide and ranks last in access to treatment, according to the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
“These stats have not changed in five years,” Mike Marshall, director of Oregon Recovers, said as he addressed the crowd. “Is that acceptable?”
The crowd responded: “No.”
Among the ideas Oregon Recovers backs:
- A package of proposals aimed at preventing opioid overdoses by making naloxone kits that reverse overdoses more available along with fentanyl test strips that check drugs for the deadly substance.
- House Bill 2544, which would put more money into treatment, including residential care that people with severe addictions often need.
- Senate Bill 238, which would require the state to develop an educational program for schools about the dangers of drugs like fentanyl, which is 100 more potent than morphine. It’s often mixed with other drugs, like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, and a single pill can kill.
The group also supports Measure 110, which decriminalized low-level drug possession and directs marijuana tax revenues into programs to help people with housing and provides other support. That includes peer mentors who have struggled with their own addictions and are in recovery.
Republican lawmakers, who largely oppose Measure 110, have filed seven proposals to repeal it or restore previous drug charges. They are unlikely to make headway in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
Marshall said the state needs to give the measure, which voters approved in 2020, a chance to show results. So far, Measure 110 programs have helped more than 60,000 people in Oregon, according to an Oregon Health Authority report released Wednesday.
Gov. Tina Kotek made behavioral health and addiction a priority in her budget proposal, released Tuesday. Her plan includes $278.9 million for treatment, peer support services, and housing and employment assistance, funded through Measure 110 and Medicaid, which is paid by state and federal funds.
The Oregon Recovers event marked the organization’s first in-person push at the state Capitol since COVID-19 started. Besides the rally, the group’s supporters scheduled dozens of meetings with legislators.
In an interview, Marshall said meetings in person give individuals who’ve been affected by the crisis a chance to tell their stories directly.
One of them is Hunter Nelms, 43, of Eugene. He’s the administrative peer supervisor at Restored Connections, a Lane County nonprofit that provides peer mentors and assistance with housing and employment.
“I hit multiple bottoms for years,” Nelms said in an interview.
Due to his struggles with alcohol and drug addiction, he didn’t have a steady job until he was 38 years old. He met his girlfriend, Lauren Burch, 28, also of Eugene, in an Alcoholics Anonymous group.
Both said Oregon needs more treatment options. Burch said she is lucky – she got treatment for alcohol addiction and the help she needed.
But she knows others who were not so fortunate.
“If I didn’t get into treatment, I would have died,” Burch said.
We have to do more. We have to do better. – Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Northeast Portland
We have to do more. We have to do better.
– Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Northeast Portland
“I think of him almost every day,” Nelson said. “No one should ever fight this battle alone.”
For those who survive, a move outside Oregon is often necessary to get the right treatment. Mary Beth Henry of Portland, an advocate with the group Oregon Moms for Addiction Recovery, said her son “desperately wanted” to stay in a treatment facility to get help with an addiction to opioids with fentanyl.
Eventually, he moved to California to get help, despite having health insurance, she said.
“Insurance wasn’t the problem,” Henry said. “The problem was no beds.”
The group cheered Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Northeast Portland, when said she has been sober for 48 years.
“We have to do more,” Sanchez said. “We have to do better.”
Sanchez is developing a proposal that would gradually increase the price of alcohol over five years. It’s part of a strategy to reduce harmful consumption and fund a public education campaign and underage drinking prevention programs.
She encouraged the group to return.
“Don’t forget you can show up again,” Sanchez said.
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