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Two years ago, Oregon changed its approach to drug addiction. The results are in


It's been more than two years since Oregon started a new social experiment to try to change the state's approach to drug addiction. Like the rest of the country, Oregon used to incarcerate people for drug possession. But in 2020, voters decriminalized drugs and proposed a new system. Instead of taking people to jail, offer them services and treatment. Joining us now to talk about how that's going is Oregon Public Broadcasting's Jonathan Levinson, who's been reporting on this story. Jonathan, thanks so much for being with us.

JONATHAN LEVINSON, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What was the argument that people made for tearing down the old system and trying to start something new?

LEVINSON: Well, nationally, we have a very punitive approach to drug addiction. You know, we arrest people. We charge them with crimes. We fine them, incarcerate them. And it might get people off the street or out of sight for a bit, but in terms of addressing addiction, it is quite harmful and can actually make recovery much more difficult. Jail is incredibly disruptive, you know, even if it's just a few weeks. People lose jobs. They lose housing. Bills can pile up. And then once you're out, parole is very difficult and cumbersome and expensive.

So the idea behind decriminalization is to replace jail and criminal charges with addiction services. It steers most of the state's cannabis tax revenue toward service providers around the state. To date, that totals more than $200 million that's been paid out. And earlier this year, the Oregon Health Authority said that already, in the early stages of the program, tens of thousands of people had already received services.

SIMON: At the same time, there's been a lot of criticism and negative public reaction. Is it accurate to say, as many people do, that it is a failed experiment?

LEVINSON: You know, Oregon still has some of the highest rates of substance use disorder in the country. Recent polling in the state shows widespread dissatisfaction with the law. But I think it's too soon to say that this is a failed policy, right? Oregon unraveled almost a half-century of drug policy in 13 weeks. It passed in November 2020, took effect February 1, 2021. That is very fast. It's so fast that service providers say the systems meant to replace arrest and jail were nowhere near ready to assume all of this increased responsibility. This is just a massive system that needs to be stood up. I spoke to Lisa Weigum, who - she oversees Measure 110 programs for a service provider in Oregon, and she said that this condensed timeline meant they were sunk before they even began.

LISA WEIGUM: And that has nothing to do with any of the agencies. It has nothing to do with the concept behind Measure 110. We don't have the time.

LEVINSON: Critics say it is a fundamentally flawed policy. Republicans in the state have been calling for its repeal for a while. They blame the law for dramatic increase in overdose deaths and drug use. They say that Oregon has become a destination for drug users - not a lot of evidence for some of that. But cities all along the West Coast are dealing with similar problems, oftentimes worse than in Oregon. Decriminalization also happened right as fentanyl started to surge. So Oregon dismantled the system that it did have just as it faced this desperate need for addiction services. So, you know, whatever you think of the policy itself, it's been a victim of tragic timing and poor planning.

SIMON: You spoke to a number of drug users and people in recovery. What did they tell you about what they think works and what doesn't work to keep people in recovery and away from drugs?

LEVINSON: Yeah. I spoke to several people who were receiving addiction services either because they were forced into it through parole and probation or because they had chosen to go into recovery for personal reasons. But none of them said that the threat of jail was a factor in their decision to quit using. I spoke to Michael Hamilton the day he was released from jail on a probation violation, and he'd been trying to quit opioids basically since he broke his foot and was prescribed OxyContin. He pointed to a different motivation for staying off of drugs than jail.

MICHAEL HAMILTON: My kids. My kids. I got a 10-year-old and a 5-year-old, both daughters. Till last four years, I never missed, like, a day of their life.

LEVINSON: On the other hand, if you talk to law enforcement, they say people are no longer getting arrested early in their addiction, and they are using longer and then getting arrested for committing more serious crimes.

SIMON: If things aren't going quite as planned, but lawmakers so far aren't ready to give up on the policy, what happens now?

LEVINSON: Well, several counties have asked the state to scrap it. That seems unlikely. Lawmakers overhauled the way money is distributed to service providers. They also passed a law in June reducing the amount of fentanyl someone can have without facing criminal penalties. Service providers I've spoken to were very cautiously, I hesitate to say, optimistic, but they felt like money was coming in, and services were starting to come online in a more meaningful way. One person I spoke to, she said she would love to have this conversation again in, like, another year and a half.

SIMON: Oregon Public Broadcasting's Jonathan Levinson. Thank you so much.

LEVINSON: Thanks for having me.

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NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Jonathan Levinson