Decriminalization movement’s goals are lofty, the effects are already being felt locally

There are changes afoot at the Keizer Police Department as a result of Oregon residents passing Ballot Measure 110 (BM110), which reduces the penalties for user amounts of controlled substances.

Depending on the source, the new approach to heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, LSD, psilocybin and other opiates is either a matter of equity or a hair’s breadth from full legalization of all addictive substances. The reality is likely somewhere in between, but the measure triggered changes that are already in place at KPD.

“As opposed to pre-BM110 enforcement, custodial arrests are not an option. Officers enforce this new law by issuing violators non-custodial citations to appear in court, similar to the procedure involved with issuing a traffic citation,” said Lt. Bob Trump, KPD spokesperson.

Officers can no longer arrest someone for possession of the substances within the amounts defined by BM110. In a broader context, Keizer Police Department were not exactly overwhelmed with drug arrests before the new approach went into effect. KPD officers made 126 arrests for narcotic possession in 2019 and 117 in 2020.

Aside from reducing arrests, BM110 is expected to impact the everyday interactions between police and citizens. A large number of conversations begin by an officer making contact with a person and the individual consenting to a conversation. To make a stop based on suspicious activity, an officer needs probable cause that a crime was committed or about to be committed. Suspicion that a person is in possession of user amounts of many narcotics will no longer fall under the list of viable reasons for probable cause.

The citation triggers one of two options for the recipient. They can pay a $100 fine or report for an addiction screening and get connected with services that could help them get sober. The bill also redirects funding from schools, police and marijuana sales to stand up community addiction recovery centers throughout Oregon.

At the time of the citation, KPD officers will confiscate any drugs and those will now be disposed of by property custodians at the department.

“Once these substances are received by property and evidence personnel, they are housed in a specially designed and separately secured holding room within the evidence facility. Once there is a sufficient quantity to warrant the substances being taken to the Brooks burn plant, property and evidence custodians do so and observe the destruction,” Trump said.

Police can still arrest those in possession of more than specified amounts and the courts will still prosecute those suspected of dealing controlled substances, said Amy Queen, spokesperson for the Marion County District Attorney’s Office.

“The DA’s office will still see the citations if they are connected to another crime, but we no longer have authority to do anything to prosecute in those situations,” Queen said. “We will do everything we can to connect those individuals to treatment though.”

In simplest terms, BM110 transitions from treating addiction as a crime and, instead, as a public health problem with the goal of expanding access to addiction services for members of the community – generally black, indigenous and people of color – disproportionately affected by criminal penalties.

Because the law took effect Feb. 1, services to provide addiction treatment still lag behind need. Justin Neilsen, executive director of Keizer-based Oregon Recovery Behavioral Health, BM110 is an experiment and the outcomes are unknown.

“Court-mandated treatment has been shown to be highly effective, but even now there is a lack of spaces for treatment,” Neilsen said. The state has

until Oct. 1 to stand up the new treatment centers.

Neilsen doesn’t see the addiction screening as an effective way to get addicts into treatment services.

“Statistically speaking, it takes 12 interventions on average for the person to become or obtain sobriety. We can’t count what is essentially a first-step assessment as an intervention,” Neilsen said.

Even with treating possession as a crime, the prior system was trying to achieve more parity across racial and socioeconomic fractures.

“We are already moving to more equal reimbursement for the same services,” Neilsen said. When the Oregon Health Plan and private insurance plans do not pay similar rates for services, the less fortunate patient can find it more difficult to find services.

Counteracting structural prejudices is the essential goal of BM110, said Ron Williams, outreach coordinator for Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance and a member of the Oversight and Accountability Council, an appointed board helping set policies needed as aresult of the new law.

“Substance use disorder is not a crime. It should not be considered in the criminal context, the issue that needs to be treated as a health issue. There will still be laws on the books to deal with the actual criminal elements that distribute drugs and who are a greater threat to the community,” Williams said.

Currently, Oregon is 47th in the nation for access to addiction treatment, the third highest in untreated addictions and there’s been a 70% increase in overdose death in the past year with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If this is a success, we will see access improve, and decrease in untreated addictions and a decrease in overdose deaths,” Williams said. “We will see increases in treatment beds, the number of counselors and the number of mentors assisting addicts through recovery.”

Still, there are those who remain unconvinced.

Judge Eric Bergstrom, a Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge, is part of a judicial outreach organization with contacts across the nation and he’s been flooded with questions about what is happening.

“Judges in Oregon have already been empathetic to the needs of addicts. Drug courts and intensive supervision programs have high success rates and low recidivism rates,” Bergstrom said. “Now those aren’t even an option, and I think we will lose participation in treatment programs because of the new law.”

Because the penalties are now so low, Bergstrom said there isn’t enough stick to encourage people to chase the carrot of addiction treatment.

“Those fines will never be paid and there’s no incentive to seek out treatment. No one is going to care about a $100 fine or pay it, those tickets are just going to be torn up,” Bergstom said.

He worries that local police agencies will stop making contacts with those suspected of user-amount possession and cut off another pathway to treatment.

The answer to whether the approach is effective is likely years, if not decades, away.

In the meantime, it might be easiest to think about the experiment in the same vein as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Creating ramps on curbs helped every person carrying heavy bags and pushing a stroller in addition to those with mobility issues. BM110 may or may not prove to be as effective.