Earlier this year, Oregon officially decriminalized drug possession.
As of Feb. 1, people caught with small amounts of illegal drugs are hit with a $100 ticket rather than being arrested. That fine can be waived if the ticket recipient agrees to take a health assessment. Plus, that person is given the option to receive free substance use disorder (SUD) treatment and support services through funding from legal marijuana sales and savings from the criminal justice system.
But six months in, it’s still unclear what those changes will mean for Oregon behavioral health providers, according to Heather Jefferis, executive director of the Oregon Council for Behavioral Health.
“It’s too early to know exactly what the impacts are going to be,” Jefferis told Behavioral Health Business.
A big reason for that is that relatively few drug possession tickets have been given out since the law took effect. Between February and June 1, only 786 tickets had gone to Oregon’s circuit courts, Jefferis told BHB on June 16, citing data tracked by the state. That number does not include tickets that went to municipal courts.
“On ticketing, it’s hard to really do any comparison because COVID happened right before this was made law, so arrest rates were way, way down,” Jefferis said. “And besides COVID, we passed some pretty significant decriminalization legislation in 2017. … So it’d be nice to have a static moment to compare, but we don’t.”
Still, Jefferis said members of the Oregon Council for Behavioral Health are excited about the impact the measure could have on SUD treatment in the state. For one, she said many providers are eager to see more funding and support going toward important recovery services that are not typically Medicaid billable, such as peer support and employment support services.
On top of that, many providers are hopeful the new law will help bolster the state’s specialty behavioral health workforce.
“We’ve all been trying to lift culturally specific services and linguistically accessible services, and hiring people with those skills [is tough because] … there’s fewer of them,” Jefferis said. “It’s always good to be able to have a way to invest a little extra money in recruiting and retaining those very needed, specialized workforce members. So this will help with that.”
In the past, BHB heard from providers in Oregon who were worried that drug decriminalization could have the opposite effect, further straining the overburdened workforce. However, that’s not a concern Jefferis has heard from her members.
“By creating a dedicated place to have more flexible funding, in addition to traditional payer funding from commercial, Medicaid and state and county contracts, we’re hopeful [this new law] actually maybe can help … with the workforce crisis,” Jefferis said.
Instead, her members are more so worried about patients falling through the cracks amid all the systematic changes.
“They want to make sure that as we go through a change in how people will engage with the system … that we don’t lose anybody in a crack,” Jefferis said.
She added that the state will likely have better data to share on the law’s provider impact by next summer, with funding for SUD treatment services set to start flowing around the end of the year.