Judith Armatta

Judith Armatta is a lawyer, journalist and human rights activist


On April 7, 2024, the Washington Post (WAPO) Editorial Board gave their opinion on Oregon's recriminalization of small amounts of hard drugs, seeking, I suppose, to deter the rest of the country from trying Oregon's short-lived experiment in decriminalization, the first state to do so. It was shockingly misinformed and hateful in its characterization of people addicted to drugs.

             Here's what the Editorial Board had to say about Oregon's innovative attempt to treat drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a crime: ". . . [I]t contributed to a surge in overdose deaths, rising violent crime, open-air drug markets, junkies wandering through the streets of Portland with needles in their arms and the acrid smell of burning fentanyl in the air."[1]

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             According to the Oregon Health Authority, "Oregon has the second highest rate of substance use disorder in the nation and ranked 50th for access to treatment."[2] In 2020, Oregonians voted for a ballot measure (M110) that decriminalized small amounts of hard drugs,[3] while providing more money for substance use disorder treatment. M110 went into effect in February 2021. Efforts to repeal became public in September 2023, a little over two and a half years later.

             Was that a fair amount of time to see if it had a positive impact? As the Prison Policy Institute's (PPI) Sarah Staudt wrote in 2024:

            "There’s no evidence Measure 110 is responsible for crime, overdoses, homelessness, or increased drug use. Although COVID-19 made assessing the impact of Measure 110 more difficult early indicators suggest that the law is achieving its goals: reducing arrests while increasing access to care. Jails and incarceration often strand people without treatment, but the referrals to community-based care created by Measure 110 offer a lasting pathway to health and better quality of life."[4]     

Contrary to what repeal sponsors claim, Oregon's crime rate overall has fallen. Since M110 took effect in early 2021, reported crimes in Oregon fell by 14% through 2023. The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission reported in November 2022: "[N]ew arrests and convictions for possession of [a] controlled substance have fallen by approximately 80-90% since the effective date of M110."[5]

             Here are just some of the successes of M110:

  • The Oregon Health Authority reported a 298% increase in people seeking screening for substance use disorders.
  • More than 370,000 naloxone doses have been distributed since 2022.
  • Community organizations report more than 7,500 opioid overdose reversals since 2020.
  • Comprehensive behavioral health needs assessments increased 114%.
  • Substance use disorder treatment increased 143 %.
  • Peer support services increased 205%.
  • Housing services increased 296%.
  • Supported employment increased 286%.

 A peer-reviewed study comparing overdose rates in Oregon with the rest of the country after the law went into effect found no link between M110 and increased overdose rates.

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             In 2020, Covid hit. In addition to further overwhelming services, it contributed to the state's decades' long lack of affordable housing. People lost jobs. Then, they lost housing. Oregon's homeless population increased 23% during the early pandemic years of 2020 to 2022 and another 12 % from 2022 to 2023. In January 2023, 20,110 Oregonians were homeless, 13,004 (65%) of them unsheltered. Oregon has the second highest rate of unsheltered homeless in the nation and the highest rate of family homelessness and unaccompanied unsheltered youth homelessness. Oregon has had an affordable housing crisis for decades for a variety of reasons,[6] not least that our capitalist system leads developers to high end construction. Until recently, politicians have allocated minimal tax dollars to affordable housing.

             As the economy worsened with the onset of Covid for those at the low end of the wage scale, and the cost of housing, food, and utilities escalated dramatically, more people lost their hold on a decent place to live and work. They ended up on the street. The poor became visible. As did drug use. And the woefully inadequate services deteriorated even more.

               In 2019, a new, cheap, extremely potent drug appeared on Portland's streets. Fentanyl greatly exacerbated Portland and Oregon's drug use problem. As usual, the state's solution was to lock up public drug users. All it did was get them off the street for a short time until they cycled back with a probation or parole violation.

            Relying on the repeal Campaign's misinformation, the Editorial Board tells us that "annual overdoses in Oregon rose 61 percent in the two years after decriminalization took effect." It was also just after fentanyl became widely available in Oregon. Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. According to the Prison Policy Institute, overdose rates are similar in other states and Oregon's is even lower than Washington's.

             A 2022 study found a 50% gap in all services: prevention, detox, treatment, harm reduction, and recovery.[7] Overall, the researchers found a 94% gap in certified prevention specialists and a 93% gap in certified mental health professionals.

             The WAPO editorial focuses on lack of accountability (i.e. arrest and jail) as a cause of drug use. 'If we could only force those addicted into treatment (which can only happen if we threaten them with jail), problem solved.' Somehow, it's never worked that way. Before M110, we forced people into jail where drugs are more available than treatment -- and wonder why it hasn't worked. Now we will do it again.

 "[I]t costs up to $35,217 to arrest, adjudicate, incarcerate, and supervise a person taken into custody for a drug misdemeanor. . . . In contrast, treatment costs an average of $9,000 per person. The money saved by M110 goes directly to state funding for addiction and recovery services."[8] 

             The Editorial Board fails to mention the greater impact arrests and imprisonment have on Black Oregonians. "Portland's police department has the fifth highest arrest rate disparities in the country, arresting Black people at a rate 4.3 times that of white people."

             Most people do not become homeless because of drug use. They don't take to the streets to get high because it's so pleasant. Getting high is a way to endure living on the streets, where cold and rain make even a tent inadequate, when you're lucky enough to have one.[9] "The reality is drugs can be a necessary survival tactic to stay awake and alive while living on the streets."[10]

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            The U.S., unlike other developed countries, relies on punishment to address social problems, and has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. M110 was an effort to redirect tax dollars and state efforts to the more humane, effective, and cost-effective way to deal with drug use. It was based on Portugal's model, established in 2001, which saw a 75% drop in drug deaths over many more years than Oregon's experiment was allowed.

             Oregon's Welcome Home Coalition is participating in a National Week of Action to Oppose Criminalizing Homelessness. They state: "Rather than punishing households that have been most impacted by our affordable housing shortage, we want to see human-centered solutions to homelessness." They highlight Houston as an example of how focusing on housing has been successful in decreasing homeless camps: "Since 2021, Houston has decommissioned more than 90 encampments, home to 600 individuals, with around 90% of them going into housing." New Orleans is following Houston's model. See www.welcomehomecoalition.org

Both cities have more affordable housing than Portland. But Portland has hundreds of millions in local funding from the recently passed 1% marginal tax on high income earners specifically marked for homeless services.

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             And yet, some Oregon business leaders are sure they know best. Businesses and consumers were not fond of stepping over people who were dirty, drunk, or under the influence of drugs -- or walking around their tents and sleeping bags. And they didn't like looking at them. It made them uncomfortable and interfered with commerce. It was not so pleasant for those sleeping on concrete in the cold and rain either. But services and housing remained woefully inadequate.

             The Oregon Legislature had already recriminalized fentanyl and substances laced with fentanyl in its 2023 regular session. That wasn't enough for a group of Portland business leaders. They went to the 2024 Oregon Legislature with a bill to repeal most of M110 and, if that didn't work, they planned to put a Ballot Measure before Oregonians and once again make small amounts of drug possession a crime.

             In the 2024 Legislative short session, M110 opponents were successful in securing a partial repeal. While the law replacing M110 provides for treatment and probation before jail, the WAPO Editorial Board and those who supported M110's repeal fail to understand that arresting, convicting, and putting someone on probation will not be an alternative to jail. Even a technical probation violation (e.g. missing an appointment with a probation officer, the most common) can land someone in jail.

             The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on April 22 in the Johnson v. Grants Pass case, an appeal from the appellate court's decision that Grants Pass's ordinances essentially banning camping on public land were unconstitutional. If Grants Pass wins, local cities, counties, and states can pretty much do what they want. It will not be pretty. What do you do when there is no place for you to sleep or even rest? We're back to providing the only beds available -- in jail -- with all the harms that come with incarceration and a criminal conviction, if you make it out alive. In the last two years, ten prisoners have died in the Multnomah County Jail. The Oregon Nurses' Association has demanded that two top supervisors be fired.

             City Commissioner and mayoral candidate Rene Gonzalez recently proposed to criminalize homelessness in Portland if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that it's constitutional to do so. He also needs to persuade the Oregon Legislature to change state law which requires cities to “ensure the most humane treatment for removal of homeless individuals from camping sites on public property,” including providing 72 hours advance notice. Gonzalez' initial proposal would make it a misdemeanor with up to a year in jail and up to a $500 fine to camp on public property.[11] Commissioner Carmen Rubio called it "inhumane." His revised proposal eliminated jail, but doubled the fine, evidence he hasn't a clue why there are so many people living on the street.

             The Portland City Council approved Mayor Ted Wheeler's competing proposal that will outlaw camping only if people have access to a shelter bed. Violation of the ordinance could result in seven days in jail. Rather than focus on their own responsibility to help reduce homelessness, which they are failing despite the recently passed 1% tax on high income earners, politicians are intent on blaming and criminalizing the vulnerable populations harmed by their own failures.  

             At the Council meeting Gonzalez said: "The reality is that nobody in this room knows with certainty what's going to motivate the folks who are currently service resistant to make different choices." [emphasis added] If his perspective dominates, there is no chance Portland's homeless crisis will be solved. Both Gonzalez' proposals would give the mayor sole power to regulate public camping. He is running for mayor.

*     *     *

           Still, recriminalization is not the end of the story. The Partnership for Safety and Justice has united with other concerned nonprofits[12] in a campaign "to elevate the message that community safety depends on people's access to treatment, housing, and services, not overusing jails."[13] Contact PSJ to see how you can help. https://safetyandjustice.org/safer/ 

             As Kassandra Frederique writes in The Daily Beast: “This recriminalization is dangerous. We’ve been down this road before. More than 50 years of evidence demonstrates that locking people up for possessing drugs or forcing them into court-ordered programs does not end drug use, but it does increase harms, including death.”[14]


[1] "Recriminalizing drugs, Oregon offers a cautionary tale," April 7, 2024. I can't help wondering who provided the information to the WAPO Board. It's doubtful they visited Portland. Perhaps one of Portland's leading lights who sponsored the Campaign to repeal M110? A great way to boost our city.

[2] OHA "Audit: Too Early to tell: The Challenging Implementation of Measure 110 Has Increased Risks, but the Effectiveness of the Program has Yet to Be Determined." January 2023.

[3] Police issued citations which could be dismissed if a person opted for a health assessment.

[4] "Oregon shouldn't go backwards on drug decriminalization," Prison Policy Institute, February 15, 2024.

[5] Oregon Recidivism Analysis, Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, November 2022.

[6] Ehrlich, April, "Oregon has an extreme housing shortage. Here's what can be done." Oregon Public Broadcasting (www.opb.com), July 26, 2023.

[7] Only one in five programs could serve the LGBTQIA+ community and one in four had no language interpretation. Oregon Health and Sciences University and Portland State University school of Public Health.

[8] Ibid., Staudt, Prison Policy Institute.

[9] In the winter of 2023, City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez ordered Portland Street Response to cease distributing tents.

[10] Drug Policy Alliance, February 2024.

[11] Kavanaugh, Shane Dixon, "After City Hall showdown, Portland leaders advance mayor's scaled-back homeless camping ban," The Oregonian/Oregon Live, April 25, 2024.

[12]Nonprofits that are part of the Campaign include PSJ, Oregon Food Bank, Basic Rights Oregon, Unite Oregon, and the Coalition of Communities of Color.

[13] Talia Gad, PSJ Communications Director.

[14] "Oregon's making a terrible mistake in rebooting the drug war," March 3, 2024.

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