By ALLEN SCHAUFFLER
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS
With the passage of Measure 110 last fall, the state of Oregon launched a dramatic, even revolutionary social experiment, largely decriminalizing hard drugs.
The state’s emphasis will now be on treatment and help for low-level drug users.
If they want it and if they choose to seek it.
As of February 1st, here’s what’s in place.
Anybody busted with what’s considered “user amounts” of L.S.D, methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, oxycodone, and several other drugs will have a choice: Pay a $100 dollar fine for a “violation” (it’s not criminal and won’t go on your record) or take a health assessment, the first step towards counseling and getting clean.
There is serious concern among law enforcement that this approach will lead to more drug use.
The head of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police calls it a “paradigm shift for law enforcement” and tells Central Oregon Daily News “If this is no longer a crime, why commit any resources to enforcing it?”
And that concern is heightened in Eastern Oregon where legal pot is already drawing Idahoans into the state in large numbers every day.
We went to Ontario for a look at the issues on the border and got a tour of the city from police chief Steve Romero.
Romero came out of policing and anti-drug work in Southern California, decades with a badge. He’s amazed at what’s happening here.
“32 years,” he says with a shake of the head, “I never thought I’d see this. Now here we are in 2021 and it’s happened. It’s disheartening.”
As he drives us around town he points out the marijuana stores, nine of them. Malheur county sells more legal weed per-capita than any other county in the state. And the parking lots and drive-thru pot stores are jammed with customers from just down the street In Idaho.
“Reality is, a lot of our trouble comes from Idaho. Idaho loves their dope.”
He expects the leniency for low-level users put into place by measure 110 will continue that cross-border attraction: after all, why use or buy hard drugs in Idaho where drug laws haven’t changed at all when Oregon is just a few minutes drive away and the penalties for getting busted are negligible? Romero says he expects to a spike in drug use, drug addiction and drug-related crime
On a bench behind a truck stop near the border, we find Ranger, a 21-year-old who says he’s been “traveling” for two years, maybe three. He says he isn’t into the hard stuff, just weed.
But on the streets, it’s impossible to avoid.
“All the time everywhere. But honestly. every other person I run into (bleep) smokes the (bleep) or knows about the (bleep) in some way shape or form.”
He’s hopeful the new emphasis on steering drug users towards counseling and treatment will help the many people in his world who need help. But his experience also makes him skeptical.
“I’ve met hundreds of people who go get treatment. And the second they’re out they just get right back to it.”
It’s a skepticism he and Chief Romero share.
“We’re the guardians that are supposed to save them from themselves. But they don’t always want to be saved.”
We meet Kevin, sitting alone in a park near the railroad tracks.
He tells us he’s been in and out of drug treatment programs a few times and is clean now. 110 might help, he says.
“I think for the most part its probably going to be the same but more people are going to be.. more easier to get help. Yeah, with drugs come criminal activities but also there’s a bigger resource now, there’s going to be a bigger community, people aren’t going to be so afraid to reach out.”
A few blocks down the street the chief stops to talk with a retired business owner about getting a group together to talk about issues in the neighborhood.
Skip Rhew says he’s fed up with the drug scene now and with the measure 110 approach. He says he cleans up needles constantly and gets death threats from people on the street. “We want nothing to do with it. These are all small businesses, this is a farming community, we don’t need this crap! We’re just trying to make a dollar.”
He points out a man across the street, huddled by a post. He knows him by name. “That’s Chris’ spot. His drug of choice is meth I believe.”
Chris tells us he doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t do meth. He mumbles, makes sense only occasionally.
I ask him if there’s help out here for people who do have drug problems. “No. I don’t think so. I mean the checks. Kind of help, the corona checks.”
Down another Ontario alley we meet an apartment manager who spots the Chief and comes over for a chat. He says Oregon’s drug policies are already bringing people into the neighborhood. “I know some people they’ve moved over here because they had problems with drugs over in Payette or over in Idaho and they.. its a little more lenient over here”
It’s exactly what Chief Romero has been telling us all day, exactly what we heard from the Malheur County Sheriff, exactly what we heard from law enforcement across the border in Idaho: In this part of Oregon, the new drug laws will be a draw, a reason come here.
Where is it all headed? The Chief admits it will be two or thee years before we know, maybe more in a town like Ontario with its border challenges. “This is a true experiment. No other state in The Union is doing this. So we don’t know. what the true impact is going to be.”
Kevin, back in the park by the tracks has another take. “The craziest things that we could see next.. is them starting to sell it in stores over the counter. Heh heh.”
His chuckles softly and his eyes widen a bit at his own vision of where Oregon could be headed next.