We have been too eager to declare victory in a war on drugs that never really started.
A recent editorial in The Daily Astorian correctly pointed to the dismal state of Oregon’s response to deaths directly caused by illegal drugs.
Another article chronicled the sad journey of Dave and Kerry Strickland, who lost their son, Jordan, to heroin and have had the courage to speak about a battle that touches so many families.
Not coincidentally, another article documented the rigors of getting a new police officer on the road at the Astoria Police Department.
While there has been some progress, together the three articles outline the imperative need for local governments to even more effectively and aggressively address drug abuse and illegal drugs.
Over-prescription of some drugs has been dramatically reduced. Pseudoephedrine was a common off-the-shelf cold medicine that was also crucial to the manufacture of methamphetamine — perhaps the worst of all the drugs. Its catastrophic health consequences include near-immediate addiction and psychotic behavior. Meth cooks bought larges batches of the drug from local stores, until Oregon passed legislation making a doctor’s prescription necessary for purchase. The “Beavis and Butthead labs,” as law enforcement called them, declined to almost zero.
We assumed that meant meth was gone. But that wasn’t so. Meth now comes into the United States in 55-gallon drums from international cartels.
The opiate that is killing people now is heroin. Heroin used to cost about $20 a dose and was far less potent. Today it is sometimes laced with illegally-imported quantities of the super-potent fentanyl, another opiate which has, when medically administered, brought tremendous relief to many (including my own mother) who suffer from severe chronic pain. “Recreational use” is the most ironic of terms for fentanyl-laced heroin, which now sells from $3 to $5 a dose and could be potent enough to kill the first time.
And so, another geopolitical aspect to our drug problems.
Many people addicted to drugs don’t end up in the court system. Some people never make it past the emergency room. Clatsop County is exceedingly fortunate to have Dr. Joann Giuliani to serve as our county’s medical examiner, not only being on call literally 24/7, but also working with police and the community when tragedies like opiate overdoses take someone’s life. Often, she answers the difficult questions families often have about how their child died.
A solid drug policy would address and provide: low-cost and long-term mental health and drug treatment; a law enforcement team dedicated to drug enforcement; and a practical, viable drug court backed up by the potential of real sanctions and real rewards. All three elements need reinforcement.
Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare has made real progress. Still, mental health treatment is scarce, and Clatsop County has no detox or secure mental health beds. In-patient drug treatment is operated entirely by private providers and remains out of reach for most without better-than-average insurance.
The path to sobriety is not easy, which is why we do not seek revocation of the second chances we extend on most drug possession cases the first few times they admit relapsing. But the threat of even a few days in jail may prompt someone to stay sober, to attend treatment, and to make it to the next stage in recovery. The people who complete drug court graduate with their case entirely dismissed.
After having founded Clatsop County’s Drug Court, Judge Philip Nelson has retired, turning drug court over to our newest judge, Dawn McIntosh. Because of sentencing guidelines, which judges are required to follow, it is literally impossible for someone to face prison for drug possession, no matter how bad their record or how many prior similar convictions they have racked up.
Not that most drug addicts belong in prison. Oregon has one of the lowest rates of imprisoning drug felons, at less than 10% of the state prison population. There is even a badly-conceived effort in this legislative session to reduce all possession cases from felonies to misdemeanors, further minimizing the actual harm done to users, their family, and the community. If the possibility of “earning away” a possible felony conviction, even without the threat of prison, is further eroded, then we can expect drug court applicants to dry to next to zero, as they have in California and other states that took this ill-advised step.
With heroin and meth being bigger business than ever, there is no reason, and no sense, in not addressing both the supply and demand sides of the drug problem.
The Clatsop County Drug Team allows police to focus on higher-level dealers, cutting off the supply much more effectively. It would have vanished long ago but for the determination of Sheriff Tom Bergin, who once ran the team as a detective. In its best years there were detectives from Astoria, Seaside, the Sheriff’s Office, and even the Oregon State Police. Draconian budget cuts have worn down the State Police for years and took away OSP’s detective. The years that Astoria Police participated were among the most productive. The City of Astoria should dedicate an officer to the drug team, in addition to its current needs.
We owe it to Dave, Kerry and Jordan Strickland, and the many others who have suffered under what The Daily Astorian called “this blight,” to do these basic steps to make Clatsop County a better place.
Joshua Marquis is the Clatsop County district attorney.