Lessons for Pa. on drug laws | Opinion

Fourteen Pennsylvania counties are currently part of the Law Enforcement Treatment Initiative (LETI), a program launched by Attorney General Josh Shapiro that empowers law to guide drug offenders toward treatment for their addiction, rather than into the criminal justice system.

It’s a common-sense policy that increases the tools available to law enforcement, keeps some people struggling with addiction out of the dysfunctional criminal justice system, and saves that system money that can be diverted to treatment.

LETI is on a continuum of state drug policies that run from continuing to aggressively prosecute the war on drugs to Oregon’s decriminalization of all hard drugs.

Oregon’s Ballot Measure 110 created a new Class E “violation,” meaning that possession of hard drugs like heroin, LSD and others is no longer a misdemeanor or felon. The resulting $100 fine can even be waived if the person calls a hotline that opens the door to counseling and other health services.

The policy is based on a 2000 law in Portugal, a country that had jailed drug offenders at more than three times the rate of its European neighbors, which resulted in major drops in drug usage, deaths and incarceration. There are differences between the Oregon and Portugal measures, however, and the devil may be in the details.

The first several months of data from Oregon is in, and they’re not encouraging: From January to August last year, Oregon recorded 473 opioid overdose deaths, more than occurred in all 12 months of 2020. Only 1% of people who received citations rang the hotline and requested resources or treatment, about 20 people.

However, these numbers don’t tell the whole story.

The money saved from reductions in arrests, jail time and probation supervision is providing millions of additional dollars for treatment. According to the Oregon Council for Behavioral Health, 30% of jobs in the addiction and recovery workforce are still unfilled, which leads to long wait times for treatment. The new funding is helping address that gap and improve treatment options.

The spike in deaths, according to the Oregon Health Authority, is likely due to the increased availability of fentanyl, which is a nationwide scourge. The social isolation and dysfunction created by the COVID pandemic also played a role.

Still, it’s clear that simple decriminalization is not a cure-all. What about Portugal’s success, though? The Iberian country’s drug program includes “dissuasion commissions” that are much more aggressive about guiding offenders into treatment, including imposing fines, prohibitions on visiting certain venues or traveling, seizure of personal property and community service.

In Portugal, it wasn’t just about the removal of punishments, but the creation of a hybrid system that understands that when people are in the grips of addiction, asking nicely is usually not enough.

Here in Pennsylvania, LETI is clearly a step in the right direction, and we encourage other counties to join the program: In the southwest, only Fayette and Somerset are in. But the state should be careful about going too far, too fast toward decriminalization. The lessons from Oregon and Portugal are that there’s no simple solution, and that the threat of punishment will always have a role to play.

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazete via AP


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