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Advocates urge bold action to address Oregon’s addiction crisis

Oregon Recovers wants state officials to declare a state emergency and mobilize a response that includes temporary field services, immediate access to care and changes to Measure 110
Oregon Recovers co-founder and director, Mike Marshall (at right), speaks at an Oregon Recovers event last year. Tony Vezina, founder and director of 4D Recovery stands at left. | COURTESY OREGON RECOVERS
September 13, 2023

The advocacy group Oregon Recovers on Wednesday launched a campaign urging state leadership to declare that addiction is a state emergency and to mobilize resources accordingly.

In an ambitious plan that harkens to 12-step recovery programs, the group outlined 12 steps aimed at slashing in half fatal drug overdoses and alcohol related deaths within a year. And, in a state where it can take months to obtain a residential treatment bed, it calls for eliminating those waitlists within 6 months.

It’s not Oregon Recovers’ first such plan — the group, made up of people in recovery from substance use disorder as well as recovery providers and allied organizations, has lobbied loudly for improvements to Oregon’s alcohol and drug treatment system since 2017.

The organization’s co-founder and director, Mike Marshall, told The Lund Report that while substances are taking the lives of too many Oregonians, “it’s a crisis that is fixable.”

Oregon Recovers hopes the 12-step plan will serve as a roadmap that policy makers at different levels of government can follow to attack the crisis from all sides, he said. It outlines ideas for shrinking the drug supply, boosting prevention efforts, combating stigma, and quickly filling gaps in the treatment system.

“There are very clear things that can occur to fix this,” Marshall said.  

The plan advocates for treating Oregon’s addiction crisis like it treated the COVID pandemic, starting with an emergency declaration and a consolidation of decision-making power. A mobilization of temporary field clinics would follow, only it wouldn’t be COVID patients they serve. Instead, places that were used as overflow hospitals during the pandemic, such as the Oregon State Fair and Exposition Center, could be transformed into temporary respite centers and detox facilities, where people could go through medically supervised drug and alcohol withdrawal and then recover from use while case managers line up residential treatment or recovery housing, Marshall explained.

And because people will need places to go after being stabilized, the plan calls for state grants that would create and support for three years 2,250 new treatment beds — including 250 long term youth residential treatment beds — and 4,000 new recovery housing beds across the state, using a recent addiction treatment system gap analysis as its guide.

A spokesperson for Gov. Tina Kotek did not comment directly on the plan, telling The Lund Report that Kotek’s advisors will review the recommendations and that the governor “is committed to addressing the state’s addiction crisis and is working to bring greater focus to the issue across state government.”

Rep. Rob Nosse, who chairs the Oregon Legislature’s Behavioral Health and Health Care Committee, reviewed the plan but had some questions.

For one, he wonders where the money to pay for such a rapid expansion would come from.

“What resources are available to be mobilized? Like every dollar that we have available to spend is already budgeted and highly fought over,” he said, adding that the state’s emergency fund is at about $50 million — not nearly enough to pay for the thousands of new beds Oregon Recovers seeks. 

“Maybe if we weren’t sending the Kicker (tax rebate) back, we could do it. That takes 40 votes in the House and 20 in the Senate to keep that money, and nobody with real political influence thinks that’s viable,” he said.

Marshall, however, said the money is there. “Without a doubt, the money is available,” he said. He noted that the Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission estimates Oregon spends about $6.7 billion in state dollars annually on issues related to substance misuse — with less than 1% at the time of the study going to treat or prevent substance use disorder.

“We’re paying over and over again for the costs associated with the absence of a system of care,” Marshall told reporters just ahead of the plan’s release.

The plan also calls for raising alcohol taxes — a politically difficult goal that for years Marshall has advocated for — to cover some of the costs. He emphasized, however, that the plan shouldn’t be contingent on increased alcohol taxes.

Centralized decision making

Marshall argues that someone in government should serve as an accountable point person for executing the plan, and they should report directly to the governor. He sees Annaliese Dolph as the best candidate. A trusted advisor to the governor, he said, Dolph already has the authority to direct state agencies to follow a strategic plan aimed at fixing the treatment system as director of the Alcohol Drug and Policy Commission.

The plan calls for consolidating decisions about money flowing to treatment and recovery services through Oregon’s voter approved drug decriminalization law, Measure 110, and the opioid settlement and placing those decisions under her direction and in alignment with a statewide strategy.

Nosse wonders whether that is feasible considering that the commission largely functions as “a think tank” and not a state agency, he said. Though he agrees that the money going out could be spent in a more coordinated way and some bringing together of efforts makes sense.

Measure 110

The plan also calls for changes to Measure 110, Oregon’s voter-approved drug decriminalization law. But one thing that could happen now, he said, is that law enforcement across the state could be directed to confiscate drugs, even small amounts, when they come across them in the field.

“If cops are consistently confiscating drugs, the drug supply is going to go down and people's resources and unavailable and the availability of it is going to go down,” he said. “There’s nothing in Measure 110 that says the cops can’t confiscate the drugs.” 

But changes to the law, the plan states, can be made to restore consequences and encourage recovery without creating “destructive criminal justice involvement.”

Those include increasing the civil penalty’s fine amount and creating a consequence for people who rack up multiple violations within a certain period of time. As a starting point for negotiations, the plan suggested that people who get 5 penalties within a year be charged with a misdemeanor.

Related to Measure 110, the plan also called for:  

●   Rapid criminal record expungement linked to participation in treatment and recovery programs.

●   Expand funding for prevention, treatment, harm reduction, peer services and recovery housing by redistributing revenue generated by alcohol taxes and alcohol surcharges from the general fund (minus city and county allocation) to the Drug Treatment and Recovery Services Fund.

●   Allow Measure 110 funds to be used for statewide prevention programs.

In response to the plan, Tera Hurst, director of the Health Justice Recovery Alliance which advocates for Measure 110, told The Lund Report:

“We will continue to work with Oregon Recovers and all stakeholders to build out an addiction services system that meets all of our communities needs. That’s where our focus needs to be. At the same time, we can’t arrest our way out of this crisis. That simply won’t work; it hasn’t worked for 50 years. Black and brown Oregonians are overpoliced and undertreated. Measured 110 is about making sure we change that. When there are massive waiting lists already we need treatment doors, not jail doors, opened.” 

Marshall said that now that Measure 110 has been fully implemented, he thinks more Oregonians understand the state needs “a much more robust response” than simply fixing what isn’t working with the measure. 

Emily Green can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GreenWrites.