A drug possession charge could result in a fine of up to $6,250 and up to a year in jail. It is now a $100 fine, or the offender can choose to undergo a health assessment.
BOISE, Idaho – Malheur County Oregonians are raising a red flag over a state law enacted in 2021. It’s called Measure 110 and it’s a law that decriminalized hard drugs across the Oregon, offering treatment instead of conviction.
The law has not worked as expected in part of the state and the police chief says it has created a series of problems for the people of Ontario.
A border town off I-84, it’s where Ontario claims the title of most populous city in Malheur County, Oregon.
John Kirby sits on the city council. But today, he’s representing himself and drawing attention to the divide between Idaho and Oregon.
“There must be a divider somewhere, but here in Malheur County, we identify with Idaho,” said John Kirby, a city council representative. “We are a community, but we have to recognize that there are divisions. Our chamber of commerce president keeps saying it’s a river, not a wall. But sometimes it’s a wall.”
According to Kirby, a wall is built by separate laws and was reinforced when Measure 110 came into effect in February 2021.
Measure 110 decriminalized hard drugs statewide in Oregon, including methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine. A drug possession charge could result in a fine of up to $6,250 and up to a year in jail. It is now a $100 fine, or the offender can choose to receive a health evaluation at an addiction center.
“It’s basically, if you’re playing Monopoly, a get out of jail card — free,” Kirby said. “There are few people who have undergone treatment.”
Ontario police say the new measure has led to more people on the streets.
“It’s less than a seat belt violation,” said Ontario Police Chief Michael Iwai. “We have a huge problem ahead of us.”
Chief Iwai said his town had been called “lawless” by the police chief of a nearby town, and said it stemmed from the impact of Measure 110.
“They don’t necessarily want help. If we know that a large portion of them have both addictions and mental health and a combination of issues, that just perpetuates the problem. That doesn’t help solve it,” Chief Iwai said.
Local business owners have had to deal with this problem, some on a daily basis. They also reported seeing some homeless people using drugs in the open.
Christine Hood is the owner of Oregon Trail Hobbies and Gifts in Ontario. She also grew up in the city and returned in 2012.
“I don’t like my daughter walking 2.5 blocks from school to come to my store,” Hood said. “It’s not the same place as when I was a kid. I don’t know exactly where Ontario derailed so far, but not only did the 110 derail it, but there were a lot of victims.”
Police Chief Iwai recently made a presentation to City Council, detailing the impact of Measure 110. In discussing the changes to the homeless population, Chief Iwai did not provide any specific numbers and said that the number of criminal calls has remained largely unchanged since 2013. However, Chief Iwai said he focused primarily on qualitative data.
The full presentation can be found below:
“The types of calls are very different,” Chief Iwai said. “We didn’t have an increase in calls then, but the calls are very different now and those calls require a lot more resources to resolve and mitigate.
Animal complaints have more than doubled since 2015, according to Chief Iwai, and calls from abandoned vehicles have almost quadrupled in the same time. He said there had also been an increase in trespassing, graffiti and public nuisance, although his presentation did not provide specific figures for those reports.
“Any night here, you see 40 to 50 people here at night,” Hood said. “More on the farms on the train, there’s the drug bar. He opens his suitcase on a table and you’ll see people rummaging around like they’re looking for jewelry. They’re not.”
But not all of them are from Oregon, according to Chief Iwai, and that’s been a problem since recreational marijuana was legalized.
“So, for example, if they’re involved in traffic stops and they’re high – now I have an Ontario officer focused on a citizen of Idaho, and that takes away from us additional opportunities to really police and community policing, our own demographics, our own community of members,” Chief Iwai said.
The Ontario Police, like many other agencies in Treasure Valley, is facing a staff shortage. Chief Iwai said they are only built to monitor up to 11,600 people, but the actual population could double at any time. Chief Iwai believes this is partly due to travelers passing through town, such as Idahoans visiting for drug-related reasons and passengers setting up camp.
“You run through these, these stores, these are Idaho plaques,” Hood said. “These are Idaho plates.”
“It creates an additional burden because there are people in Idaho who want to come here to buy marijuana, and then they can stay and do hard drugs without incurring any penalties,” Kirby said.
Led by Chief Iwai, the city council wrote a letter to Oregon Governor Kate Brown and state leadership. It reads in part, “we can no longer afford to bear the burden of being our neighboring state’s drug-consuming destination and look forward to continuing to maintain the quality of life our citizens expect and deserve”
The full letter can be read below:
“So basically we’re the experience,” Mahuer County District Attorney David Goldthorpe said. “Other states that might think about it are looking to Oregon to see what happens when you do that. I mean, in my opinion, and from what I’ve seen in my community, the increase in homelessness, increase in ephemerality, increase in property crimes, increase in overdose deaths.”
The National Center for Health Statistics reports that overdose deaths in Oregon increased by more than 20% from May 2021 to May 2022. During the same period, the country saw an average increase of 15%.
Goldthorpe said the law failed to deliver on its promise.
“It was sold as a good thing. However, it took the existing system of referring people to treatment that we had used for many, many years and replaced it with nothing,” he said. “So that’s where the problems arose.”
The state saves money by not prosecuting drug possession. That money, along with a portion of the state marijuana sales tax revenue brought in by Measure 110, is being redirected to a “drug treatment recovery fund.” The purpose of the fund is to provide more addiction treatment services; meet people with compassion and treatment and stop locking them up for drug offenses.
“If he had replaced the existing system with something else, it might have been,” Goldthorpe said.
“They have $300 million, that’s the last count I have, and no facilities have been built,” Chief Iwai said.
Although new facilities have yet to be built in Oregon, some facilities already exist. Lifeways is an example of a detox facility with resources in Ontario. But the problem is that now that drugs are no longer criminalized, the courts cannot order people to seek help.
Prior to Measure 110, Goldthorpe said time spent in prison often served as a period of drug addiction for drug addicts. Under Measure 110, there is no process for the state to require any form of drug rehabilitation for a possession charge.
“Those kinds of systems have been shown to work. However, you should have created this system in law, you should have created an alternative and given the state still some sort of authority to say, ‘hey, you don’t not helping you and if you keep doing that, you’re going to die,” Goldthorpe said. “So we’ll step in and see if we can’t help save your life.”
This frustration is compounded by the fact that Malheur never supported Measure 110. Despite passing the measure statewide, by nearly 17 percentage points, Malheur County citizens voted it down. Ontario’s letter to the Statehouse asks the governor to exclude Ontario from the law and rescind Measure 110 locally.
But it is not that simple.
“You can’t have a county where it’s illegal to use drugs in the county where it’s not,” Goldthorpe said. “That’s not how state criminal laws work.”
Residents believe their town has been reduced to the county camp, raising awareness in the town ahead of the general election.
“If the candidate can trash 110, I’m all for it,” Hood said.
Although Kirby knows his powers are limited by the city council, he said Ontario has been his home for 74 years and he won’t stop pushing for the future of the governor’s seat.
In order to find a gubernatorial candidate, this sees the wall built by Measure 110.
“This daring experiment failed,” Kirby said. “We have different laws. You know, Idaho has Conservative laws outlining the steps needed to bring it down. It may even have to go back to a vote of the people, but it could start at the legislative level or at the state level. governor.”
The first round of “drug treatment recovery funds” were distributed in July. Malheur County received $1.8 million in total.
The Eastern Oregon Center for Independent Living (EOCIL) is one of three local partners to receive this funding. Their share of $500,000 allows them to build a seven-unit apartment complex for people in drug addiction.
EOCIL chief executive Kirt Toombs said the remaining funding will largely strengthen existing programs across the region.
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