Oregon’s botched drug treatment plan tied to decriminalization

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — 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 are rising, 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 $100 fine waived if they call a hotline for a health assessment.

The ballot measure redirected millions of dollars in tax revenue from the state’s legal marijuana industry toward 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 had 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. He insisted he had strong potential, saying officials had “relyed too much on traditional treatment”.

“The range of services, the types of services included, the approach, harm reduction, etc., are all designed by people who have been through this and have, I think, some really interesting good ideas about what these service systems should make it look like,” he said. “So it’s an experiment. I think we’ll know more in a few years.

Rep. Lily Morgan, a Republican from Grants Pass, said lives are 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 mother’s struggles with heroin and meth addiction before she recovered. 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 efforts to provide treatment services and reduce harm, 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, an audit manager, said the ballot measure lacked clarity about the roles of the health authority and the Oversight and Accountability Board that have been created.

It “contributed to delays, confusion and strained relationships,” Green said. He also blamed the health authority for not always adequately supporting the council. 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 through deliberate, intentional, and focused efforts and courageous, solution-focused conversations,” Williams said.

The health authority said $40 million in funds have been disbursed.

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 assess the needs of people who use drugs, offer case management, treatment, housing and links to other services, are waiting for these 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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