Addiction crisis calls for public health response, not punishment

I’ve gotten to know Newport and the surrounding communities well during more than 30 years of living here. The first portion of that time I spent as a journalist, and the past 15 years as one of your county commissioners.

Because of my work, I’ve had an up-close look at homelessness, the foster care system, law enforcement, our courts and other issues and systems. They all have at least one common thread: An overwhelming number of people dealing with addiction. In fact, statewide, one in 11 Oregonians struggle with addiction, and one to two Oregonians die from drug overdoses every single day.

My great takeaway after years of working closely on policy, budgeting and learning about social issues is that we, as a society, have a problem: failure to recognize that addiction actually is a public health issue. 

It just so happens public health issues — as the COVID pandemic demonstrates — require thoughtful, strategic and, most of all, medical-based approaches. 

Yet, Oregon ranks nearly last of all states in access to basic drug treatment. 

Our main response to this public health crisis is to treat addiction as a crime and launch people into the costly universe of criminal management. Every hour, police in Oregon arrest someone for drugs, adding up to 8,900 Oregonians arrested each year, taking valuable time that law enforcement could be spending on higher priority issues.

Arresting, prosecuting and jailing a person for simple drug possession costs between $23,000 and $35,000, according to ECONorthwest, whereas providing someone with drug treatment costs about $10,000. 

I know our county court system is strained by a relentless volume of people facing issues related to drugs. 

Cumulatively, costs are huge for us as taxpayers. 

Then there are the incalculable “costs” of saddling someone with a criminal record because of their addiction. I know of people who’ve struggled to find work, a place to live or even get a credit card because of a drug possession charge. 

Instead, we should be helping these people, whose main needs are health care. Which is why I’m one of many Oregonians working to change our approach. I am enthusiastically supporting a yes vote on Initiative Petition 44, the Drug Addiction Treatment & Recovery Act, because I want to see a compassionate, humane and health-based response to drug addiction. 

This statewide measure, which will be on the November ballot, does just that. It will not legalize any drugs. Instead, this proposal removes criminal penalties for small amounts of personal possession and connects those in need with drug treatment and recovery services. 

The measure also does not require more money from you. Instead, it’s paid for with some revenue from Oregon’s existing marijuana tax.

This initiative addresses addiction by expanding access to addiction treatment and recovery services throughout the state, including communities like ours. Right now, not all communities have this, and many of the ones that do are overcrowded and must turn away people when they are ready for recovery. 

Instead of having long wait lists and finding a facility far away, this measure allows communities to offer support where people need it — close to families and jobs. Upon completing treatment, people will be able to build a local support network to help them maintain their recovery. 

This measure will change our approach to one that treats addiction as a public health issue. It will save money and save lives.

IP 44 truly is a significant opportunity to make our community safer, to use tax dollars better and to provide a compassionate, humanitarian approach to people suffering from these challenges. 

Please join me in voting yes for the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, Initiative Petition 44.

Claire Hall is a member of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners.


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