Ore. lawmakers reverse course on drug decriminalization amid fentanyl crisis

State legislators at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem have voted to recriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs amid a surging opioid crisis in the state. Photo by M.O. Stevens/Wikimedia Commons

March 2 (UPI) -- Three years after Oregon voters approved a referendum decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs, the state's Legislature has overturned the measure amid a booming fentanyl crisis.

The Oregon Senate on Friday voted 21-8 to approve House Bill 4002, which makes it a misdemeanor to possess small amounts of illicit drugs. House members approved the measure by a 51-7 vote Thursday.

The law now goes to Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek, who hasn't said whether she would sign or veto the proposed law, The Oregonian reported.

The proposed law would create a new misdemeanor that is punishable by up to 180 days in jail, although offenders would be given an alternative option of enrolling in a substance abuse program instead of going to jail.

Those who are convicted of possession offenses could have their criminal convictions expunged by completing a diversion program for substance abuse treatment.

The Senate also approved $211 million in funding for substance abuse education and to expand residents' access to programs and projects that address substance abuse. The funding also would apply to programs for those who are incarcerated or obtaining mental health services in Oregon.

"We are doubling down on our commitment to make sure Oregonians have access to the treatment and care that they need," Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber said in a statement to Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Lieber, who co-wrote the measure, said enacting it would "be the start of real and transformative change for our justice."

The measures were spurred by a growing drug crisis largely fueled by fentanyl and methamphetamine and a surge in overdose deaths since voters approved Measure 110.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp Measure 110 didn't live up to its promise of enabling people struggling with drug abuse and addiction to get treatment. Instead, it spurred drug use in public and exponentially increased overdose deaths caused by opioids, fentanyl and other illicit drugs, he claimed.

Lawmakers opposing House Bill 4002 said the proposed law disproportionately would affect people of color and signal a return to the war on drugs.