Lawmakers take first deep plunge into proposals to address the drug crisis 

Most of the ideas would need funding, and that’s not yet been set 

By: - February 7, 2024 5:45 am
Oregon is awash with fentanyl pills.

Oregon lawmakers are considering proposals to address the state's drug addiction crisis, from expanding treatment to more housing. Oregon's addiction crisis is fueled by fentanyl, which is short acting and stays a long time in the body. (Getty Images)

As Oregon lawmakers start to work on the state’s drug addiction and overdose crisis, the complexity of their undertaking is still emerging. 

In a 35-day session, legislators want to change how police interact with people who possess small amounts of hard drugs, increase addiction treatment and fund residential facilities. They also want to expand the availability of opioid treatment in jails, increase access to drug courts and more recovery housing.

But the state doesn’t have unlimited money. And money alone is not enough. Lawmakers say they will not solve the state’s fentanyl-fueled overdose crisis immediately – or with one legislative session. They have long-term plans to seek solutions into the 2025 session and beyond. 

Here’s a look at what lawmakers are considering:

Approach to criminal charges 

One of the main bills, House Bill 4002, would create diversion or “deflection” programs to allow people to avoid misdemeanor drug possession charges that carry up to 30 days in jail. In a committee hearing on Tuesday, lawmakers heard about what that might look like as they reviewed their proposal and a potential amendment. 

It would work by letting a suspect avoid a charge if they complete a diversion program that would include a behavioral health screening and have at least one more contact with the program afterwards. The programs would be intended to get people access to treatment and other recovery services, including housing and case management.

Community mental health programs, which exist in each of Oregon’s 36 counties, would coordinate the work, overseeing state grant funds and responsibility for the program’s certification with the state. 

Justice is beyond just prosecuting a case and getting a conviction. Justice is really about understanding what the societal need is, what the best outcome is.

– Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson

Under the proposal, a police officer would refer a person found with drugs to the program when they have probable cause to arrest or cite them for unlawful drug possession. If a law enforcement agency receives a written notice that someone has completed a deflection program, the agency would  notify the district attorney, and police and prosecutors would seal all records related to the person’s participation in the program.

At this point, community mental health providers are still analyzing what that may look like in their regions. But this much is clear: They’ll need more resources to get the programs set up. The bill would make grants available.

Amy Baker, executive director of Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, said the county would need more staff if it had to have people available around-the-clock to respond. The county would also need enough case managers to handle the volume of people signing up for deflection programs, but it’s unclear now how many that would be. 

“If it’s a couple people a week, we can probably figure it out,” Baker said in an interview. “If it’s 10 to 20, then we’ve got to build an infrastructure to handle that.”

Shovel-ready projects 

Oregon lawmakers have asked behavioral health providers to submit a list of “shovel-ready” residential projects that could house people in recovery with a quick-turnaround if funded. It’s unclear how much money the state would pay for those.

State report says Oregon needs nearly 3,000 more beds for behavioral health treatment

State behavioral health organizations have submitted a list of shovel-ready projects, and,  if all were funded, they would meet about one-third of the needs identified in an Oregon Health Authority report released last week, according to Cherryl Ramirez, executive director of the Association of Oregon Community Mental Health Programs. That report found the state has a shortage of nearly 3,000 beds.

But the state does not have enough money to fund all the potential facilities. 

Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, said lawmakers don’t know yet how many beds would be funded this session. Beyond the facilities, there is a shortage of behavioral health workers that makes recruiting and retaining staffers challenging. Ramirez encouraged lawmakers at the hearing to remember that when they make plans.

“We can’t do deflection, jail diversion or residential treatment services without investments in workforce,” Ramirez said. “Besides a living wage, we need incentives like apprenticeship programs, scholarships, bonuses, child care and housing, to recruit and retain our valuable workforce.”

Medication in jails

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, has a bill that would expand the availability of medication to treat opioid addiction in jails. She’d like to see $10 million available to pay for jails that apply for grants for medication programs, but the final figure isn’t set.

Marsh said treating people in jail is important, regardless of what one thinks of Measure 110. That’s because regardless of whether the measure stays in place or is amended, people will end up in jail who need treatment.

Though many jail inmates have addiction problems, facilities lack treatment services

“If we are serious about treatment, we need to be providing treatment in our local jails,” Marsh said in an interview. “That’s where people land, and that’s where you have an opportunity when they are incarcerated to offer them a path towards stability. And that’s frankly the humanitarian thing to do.”

Recovery housing

Besides residential treatment facilities, lawmakers also are considering how much money to put into recovery housing. Recovery houses operate on a smaller scale and give people a place to live with others in recovery in a supportive environment. They also provide housing to keep people off the streets and aid their recovery.

Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, said one proposal would help address homelessness and addiction in the state. 

Funding hasn’t been determined.  But Tony Vezina, executive director of The 4th Dimension Recovery Center in Portland, has told lawmakers that the state could get 574 beds available for people within about 18 months with about $17 million. 

“What it is is a down payment,” he said in an interview.

Statewide, there are about 3,219 recovery beds in Oregon, and the state needs nearly 3,900 more, according to a 2022 state report about the need for addiction treatment and recovery services. They can be opened sooner than residential treatment facilities, he said.

Specialty courts

Another proposal, House Bill 4001, would set up a task force to study speciality and treatment courts. 

Such programs offer opportunities for people in the courts system to access treatment and mental health treatment and social services. 

House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday he is advocating for $8.8 million to bolster speciality court programs so interested jurisdictions can access funding. 

“Our addiction crisis is impacting every corner of our state,” Rayfield said in his testimony. “We must continue to find ways to connect people to the services they need. For those who engage with our criminal justice system, specialty courts are critical to their recovery and for their future.”

The programs, also called drug courts, often struggle to find funding. As a result, Benton County suspended its drug court program last year. 

In an interview, Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson said the bill’s intent to study the issue is the right move. 

“It really opens the door to doing a deep dive on the science,” he said. “Oftentimes, we look for solutions with very good intentions. But we aren’t necessarily relying upon the science that already exists. And so House Bill 4001 affords us that opportunity to be able to ensure that we’re utilizing the best science in defining the most effective approach.”

Haroldson said the role of prosecutors is wider than simply filing charges and trying a case.

“From a prosecutor standpoint, I would note that justice is beyond just prosecuting a case and getting a conviction,” he said. “Justice is really about understanding what the societal need is, what the best outcome is.”

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Ben Botkin
Ben Botkin

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Ben Botkin 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.

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