Oregon’s botched drug treatment plan tied to decriminalization

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SALEM, Ore. — Efforts to secure millions of dollars in funding for treatment centers and related services as part of Oregon’s pioneering drug decriminalization have been botched even as drug addiction and overdoses rise , state officials and lawmakers said Thursday.

Oregonians passed Ballot Measure 110 in 2020 decriminalizing possession of personal amounts of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs – the first in the nation to do so. A person found with drugs receives a citation, like a traffic ticket, with the maximum fine of $100 waived if they call a hotline for a health assessment.

But in the first year after the new approach took effect in February 2021, only 1% of people who received citations for possession of controlled substances sought help through the new hotline.

The ballot measure redirected millions of dollars in tax revenue from the state’s legal marijuana industry into treatment. But the funding requests have piled up after state officials underestimated the work needed to review them and get the money out, testimony before the House Interim Committee on Behavioral Health testified Thursday. Only a tiny fraction of the funds available have been sent.

“So clearly if we were going to start over, I would have requested a lot more staff a lot faster in the process,” said state behavioral health director Steve Allen. “We just lacked the resources to be able to support this effort, we underestimated the work needed to support something that looked like this and partly we didn’t fully understand it until we were in the middle of it. “

Allen, who works for the Oregon Health Authority, told lawmakers during the remote hearing that the $300 million project had never been done before.

Representative Lily Morgan, a Republican from the southwestern Oregon town of Grants Pass, said lives were being lost as the state waits for the ballot measure to have a positive effect.

“Director, you mentioned a few times that you were waiting to see, and yet we have overdoses that are increasing at a drastic rate, in my community a 700% increase in overdoses and a 120% increase in deaths,” said Morgan to Allen. . “How long do we wait before we have an impact on the fact that we save lives?”

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan appeared before the committee and described her own mother’s struggles with heroin and meth addiction. Fagan said Oregon remains in a drug addiction crisis, despite the ballot measure.

“When Oregon voters passed Measure 110, we did so because it was a policy change in Oregon to improve people’s lives, to improve our communities,” he said. Fagan said. “And in the years that followed, we didn’t see that play out. … Instead, in many communities across Oregon, we have seen the problem of substance abuse worsen.

Allen acknowledged that there had been a “dramatic” increase in overdoses and overdose deaths across the state and attributed much of the cause to the recent arrival of methamphetamine mixed with the synthetic opioid fentanyl. so potent that a tiny amount can kill, and illicit pills containing fentanyl.

It adds urgency to the effort to provide treatment and harm reduction services, such as drugs to treat overdoses and needle exchanges, which the measure also pays for, he said. Advocates point out that the services are available to everyone in Oregon, not just those who have been cited for possession.

“Giving these resources to the community is extremely important…not just the harm reduction resources, but the people who can support those at risk of overdose,” Allen said. “So time is running out.”

Ian Green, head of audits for Fagan, said the ballot measure’s text lacked clarity about the roles and responsibilities of the health authority and the Oversight and Accountability Board that the measure establishes.

It “contributed to delays, confusion and strained relationships,” Green said. He also faulted the health authority for not always providing adequate support to the accountability board.

Council co-chair Ron Williams said most of the funds available had still not been released.

“I believe these challenges can be overcome and corrected with deliberate, intentional, and focused effort and courageous, solution-focused conversations,” Williams said.

The health authority said it has offered a three-month extension to recipients through Oct. 1, who will receive a pro-rated amount based on their previous award and bringing the total funds disbursed to $40 million.

But about $265 million set aside for the 2021-23 biennium has still not been spent, said Devon Downeysmith, spokesperson for the Health Justice Recovery Alliance. Hundreds of providers, who screen for the needs of people who use drugs, offer case management, treatment, housing and links to other services, are still waiting for those funds.

Still, more than 16,000 Oregonians have accessed services through Measure 110 funding, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, which led the measure.

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