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Oregon elected officials plan visit to Portugal for drug decriminalization 'fact-finding' trip

Portugal's decriminalization of drugs inspired Measure 110 in Oregon. Now local leaders want to compare notes, most of them traveling on an advocacy group's dime.

PORTLAND, Ore. — A group of Oregon elected officials have planned a field trip to Portugal in order to learn more about the European nation's drug decriminalization program, one which inspired Oregon's own Measure 110.

Passed by Oregon voters with 58% in favor back in 2020, Measure 110 decriminalized user amounts of every street drug. It also appropriated the lion's share of Oregon's cannabis tax dollars toward programs meant to facilitate drug treatment.

But recent polling suggests that Measure 110 no longer has the support of most Oregon voters — in fact, a majority of respondents said they'd prefer to see it repealed instead of staying as-is. The ubiquity of cheap, powerful and addictive opioids in the form of fentanyl has contributed to a highly visible addiction crisis and record overdose deaths, and it's taking time to establish sufficient avenues for treatment.

RELATED: Drug treatment in Oregon still hitting a bottleneck at inpatient care

Faced with mounting pressure, the group that championed Measure 110 in 2020 has organized this outing to Portugal for local politicians, ostensibly in order to get a better idea of how the law could or should work, given enough time and resources.

The Health Justice Recovery Alliance is a coalition of state and national groups putting the trip together. A spokeswoman for the group told The Oregonian/OregonLive that the trip will be funded by private foundations whose missions and work focus on criminal justice reform. It's set to happen between October 30 and November 3.

The delegation so far includes Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson (who said she'll pay for the trip herself), Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, state Rep. Rob Nosse, state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, state Sen. Kate Lieber, and state Rep. Lily Morgan — the only Republican lawmaker in the group and a vocal opponent of Measure 110. The Oregonian reports that about 10 others will tag along, including the president of Portland's police union, Aaron Schmautz.

The Story has twice featured the architect of Portugal's drug decriminalization, Dr. João Goulão. The first time was when Pat Dooris spoke with Goulão directly to explore some of the differences between Oregon's program and Portugal's own — such as how Oregon lacks some of the latter's methods of accountability and lags significantly in terms of access to treatment.

Portugal began allowing citizens to possess a supply of street drugs for about 10 days of personal use back in the year 2000, becoming the first country in the world to do so. They began treating addiction as a public health matter rather than a criminal one. Goulão described the program as a resounding success, and a lot of the early data backed that up.

But about nine months after his interview with The Story, Goulão spoke at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. Addressing stories about Portugal's recent struggles with decriminalization, Goulão ruefully acknowledged that there was a problem.

RELATED: Portugal, the drug decriminalization success story Oregon followed, now appears to be in trouble

"It is true that we are having some difficulties now days in supplying treatment, timely treatment without waiting lists, for instance," he said. "We have the visibility of disorganized users on the streets in Lisbon and Porto, mostly in the big cities. And we are concerned about it."

According to Goulão, Portugal stopped investing sufficiently in treatment and accountability after the nation's initial successes. Now there are long waits to get connected with help, so addicts simply don't go — and police have started to think that citations are futile because there are no consequences for failing to follow through. 

For Oregonians, that state of affairs probably sounds familiar.

The Story airs at 6:30 p.m. every weekday on KGW. Got a question or comment for the team? Shoot an email to thestory@kgw.com or call and leave a voicemail at 503-226-5090.

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