Recriminalizing Drugs Would Be A Bad Choice For Oregon (Op-Ed)

Recriminalizing Drugs Would Be A Bad Choice For Oregon (Op-Ed)

“Maintaining a program that lauds the success of the few who find recovery through mandated treatment at the cost of the many who don’t is a twisted calculus, valuing one person’s abstinence over others’ lives.”

By Morgan Godvin, Oregon Measure 110 Oversight and Accountability Council via Oregon Capital Chronicle

Experts—and editorials—have recently claimed that no one has been imprisoned for drug use for years, long before Oregon’s Measure 110 was approved in 2020. But that is not accurate.

You don’t have to be sent to prison to be incarcerated for drug use. I know. Between 2013 to 2014, I was jailed for 65 days for drug possession.

And I’m not the only one.

From 2018 to 2019, more than 3,100 Multnomah County residents were charged with drug possession, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. Many of those people ended up in jail. Traditionally, the graduation rates for drug courts are low. So, while billed as an “alternative to incarceration,” many of those who opt for them end up being jailed and given a criminal record anyway.

Diversion will inevitably result in incarceration for those who do not stop using drugs, even absent any other crime and alongside earnest treatment attempts. Once someone is terminated from diversion, they’re placed on probation where they often end up back in jail.

Addiction is defined as the continued use of a substance despite repeated negative consequences. The consequences I faced—such as the destruction of my interpersonal relationships, financial ruin and write-ups for being late to work as I waited for a drug dealer that never came—were not enough to force me to quit, and imposing more consequences such as jail was not enough to silence the siren song of opioids that had gripped me for so long.

In 2013, when I was arrested for felony heroin possession while still in my Domino’s Pizza uniform, the graduation of the drug court program hovered around 30 percent. The rest swung through the revolving door of the  jail, unstable living situations, depression and addiction.

After going to detox and an inpatient facility using my private insurance—it was not provided by the court—I relapsed. I found a doctor to prescribe Suboxone, which prevents withdrawal symptoms and severely dulls the effects of heroin. But it didn’t stop me from using it completely, as I couldn’t will myself to take it everyday. I had the bright idea to remove my free will from the equation in order to finally stop using for good. I thought if I went to jail, where I could use nothing but the medication for a week, I would finally be free from cravings and build a foundation for recovery.

So, I walked into my weekly drug court check-in and asked to be taken to jail. Once there, the medical staff refused to provide my medication. One study showed that opioid treatment medications, like buprenorphine, the main ingredient in Suboxone, increase the life expectancy for people with opioid use disorder by 50 percent. If it were a cancer drug, it would be hailed as a miracle. Yet it is still not widely available in jails and prisons. And it does not work as well against fentanyl as it has against other opioids. Methadone is considered the gold standard, despite having high barriers imposed by federal regulation.

In jail, I writhed in agony for seven days from a forced cold-turkey withdrawal I had requested. I was released, a little embittered and a lot traumatized. I relapsed within the hour.

By the time I was terminated from drug court, I had served five weeks in jail across three stays, and later served four weeks for probation violations. This is what will happen to the majority of people placed on the diversion track. Even the head of the federal addiction research body, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, supports decriminalization. Jail does not help: It provides no benefit, but costs taxpayers hard-earned dollars.

Putting people who may not be ready for treatment in direct competition with people who are begging for it, when we know we don’t have the resources that mandated treatment would require, is deeply unethical. It also risks creating a psychological association of “recovery” with “jail” and “handcuffs.”

I, too, would rather not walk by people smoking fentanyl on the sidewalk. We are repeating the same failed strategies of our own past and most other states. This is neither hypothetical nor ideological: Just look to Washington, which recriminalized drugs in a similar proposal to what is being suggested here after its Supreme Court negated its drug possession statute as unconstitutional, leading to a period of de facto decriminalization. The state has the highest year-over-year increases in fentanyl death; Seattle still faces a record-shattering number of overdoses monthly. And since fentanyl took over Oregon’s drug market, it has one of the fastest increasing rates of overdose among both adults and teens.

Incarceration has been shown to have little effect on drug use. There are solutions to address public drug use and homelessness—like safe consumption sites that would give people an alternative to using in the public sphere, while strictly banning use everywhere else. Baltimore, Maryland and West Virginia have higher poverty and overdose rates, yet far lower rates of homelessness—everyone can afford their rent if it’s cheap enough, no matter why they are poor.

But in looking towards recriminalization, we are opting for political cowardice.

Kevin Barton, Washington County’s district attorney and a chief supporter of a recriminalization proposal, claims to support people in addiction finding recovery. The actions of those under his command, however, belie that intention. In 2020, I went before a judge after petitioning to reduce my 2013 Washington County drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. Over five years into recovery and a commissioner on the state’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission, I was forced to live with my aunt, unable to pass a background check to secure housing.

“We believe that maintaining this felony is not unduly harsh considering the totality of Ms. Godvin’s criminal conduct,” said one of Barton’s staff to the judge. Rather than letting me move on with my life, and be stably housed seven years after being found in possession of residue amounts of heroin, Barton’s staff preferred to leave me branded a felon for life. Luckily, the judge immediately overruled. I now have my own apartment.

Criminal Justice Commission data shows that among the more than 3,400 drug possession citations issued between February 2021 and October 2022, nearly 55 percent of the individuals had no other charges either the year before or the year after. Were possession to be recriminalized, those people would be jailed solely for their addiction and not because they committed an actual crime.

I did not commit a crime to support my habit, I delivered pizza. Those who commit property crimes in Portland are already placed into a strict drug court program. Tying up police resources for people like me will not improve public safety.

In a recent editorial, The Oregonian was right about one thing: Recriminalizing drugs will solve none of our problems. Yet it omitted a major point: It will create new ones. Thousands of drug possession cases will strain our police and public defender shortages, diverting scarce resources away from serious crimes. It will lead to an increase in overdoses as forced periods of abstinence—whether treatment for those who don’t want it or jail—reduces fentanyl tolerance. So when people reuse and take the same amount, they overdose and die.

Maintaining a program that lauds the success of the few who find recovery through mandated treatment at the cost of the many who don’t is a twisted calculus, valuing one person’s abstinence over others’ lives.

That would represent a return to a system that led to the harm of many of my friends. Justin, Monty, Amanda, Chris and Jesse, may you rest in peace.

Morgan Godvin is a lifelong Oregonian who serves on the Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission and Measure 110 Oversight and Accountability Council. She is a writer, researcher and founder of harm reduction organization Beats Overdose. She is a graduate of the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health.

This story was first published by Oregon Capital Chronicle.

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