Oregon’s Lagging Substance Use Disorder Plan May Get Boost

Four years ago, Oregon lawmakers passed a bill to force the long-unproductive Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission to create a plan for improving the state’s publicly-funded substance abuse programs. For the prior nine years, the commission hadn’t — despite a mandate to do so.

Two years later, under the wing of a new executive director and pressure from an influential lobbying group made up of people in recovery from substance use disorder, called Oregon Recovers, the commission finally delivered its 89-page statewide plan.

Now, legislators are considering a bill to force movement on the plan once again, only this time it’s aimed at prompting action from various state agencies whose participation is needed to meet the plan’s ambitious goals. 

As of Thursday morning, the bill had passed through the House unanimously and was awaiting a vote in the Senate, slated for Friday.

Since the plan’s release, Oregon’s addiction crisis has only grown more dire. The state fell into last place nationally for the number of people who need but aren’t receiving alcohol and drug treatment, according to new data from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The same federal data shows that in 2020, nearly 650,000 Oregonians aged 18 and older were estimated to struggle with addiction.

When the Legislature approved the commission’s plan for increasing access to treatment and reducing substance use disorder, the plan became a directive, though it was unfunded and lacked teeth. 

Then the pandemic took hold of Oregon. Implementation was put on pause for much of the year and only progressed slowly and in piecemeal fashion since.

“Legally, the state is supposed to be implementing the plan,” Mike Marshall, co-founder and director of Oregon Recovers, said in an interview. Instead, he said, Oregon has lost 40% of its treatment beds during the pandemic. “The governor hasn't implemented it,” he said. “This legislation is an important step forward.”

The commission’s new director, Dr. Reginald Richardson, told The Lund Report the state has made “some” progress. But he’d like to make more, and he’s relying on House Bill 4098 to get a better understanding of what the various state agencies involved have accomplished.

He said the bill would prompt a more integrated and coordinated approach by requiring participating agencies to report to his commission regularly on where they are with their portions of the plan’s implementation.

“That's our attempt to try to stay on top of who’s doing what, and where we are with the implementation,” Richardson told The Lund Report.

The bill would require agencies including the Department of Consumer and Business Services, the Housing and Community Services Department, the Youth Development Division, the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, the Oregon State Lottery Commission, the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission, and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to meet four times a year with the commission to report on their progress, as well as process and outcome measures established in the plan.

Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-North and Northeast Portland, introduced the bill. She also introduced the legislation that spurred the commission to action in 2018.

She said involving additional state agencies is key.

“It really is important that we have a much more systemic process for dealing with the addiction issues in our state,” she told the House Behavioral Health Committee in February. “It should be standard procedure.”

Sen. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, has worked with Sanchez in previous legislative sessions to bring the bill forward.

“We just cannot wait another session to pass this bill,” she told the committee. “Too many lives are depending on us.”

Sollman has sat on the Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission since 2017.

Richardson said the 2021 legislative session led to some financial investment in the system that was consistent with the plan. But other policies were not, “like the expansion of alcohol sales,” he said, which “was definitely inconsistent with the plan.”  

He was referring to the law permitting to-go hard alcohol sales from bars and restaurants as they faced economic hardship brought on by the pandemic. This flew in the face of the plan, which called for decreasing the availability of harmful products and decreasing the over-service of alcohol in drinking and dining establishments.

Amendments have since been added to the bill to include the establishment of an Opioid Settlement Prevention, Treatment and Recovery Fund fed with money from settlement agreements with opioid manufacturers and distributors and the creation of an Opioid Settlement Prevention, Treatment and Recovery Board to determine allocation of those funds.

For more than 15 years Oregon has been involved in litigation to hold the opioid industry accountable, efforts that are now coming to fruition. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum announced Thursday morning that Oregon has secured $426 million in funds from two settlements, which will be used to counter the state’s opioid crisis.

Spending the funds requires the same kind of collaboration that the Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission’s plan needs to succeed, Oregon Department of Justice Legislative Director Kimberly McCullough explained to lawmakers. 

Richardson, of the Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission, would be included on the board that oversees the allocation of settlement funds.

Should the bill pass, its cost will be $675,733, to be paid for with Oregon’s share of the opioid settlement funds.

You can reach Emily Green at [email protected] or via Twitter at @GreenWrites.

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