This makes for a simple and compelling storyline: Since Oregon has loosened its marijuana and other drug laws – through ballot measures in 2014 and 2020 – law enforcement agencies have been reporting massive seizures in the state of illegal pot and large-scale illegal operations in rural parts of the state. The implicit message is that drug abuse is exploding.
Some of the seizures are massive, amounting to more than 105 tons in the state so far this year, much more than just three years ago.
Beyond those headlines, however, the connections aren’t so simple, and some perspective is needed.
One way to approach this is through the organization that is the source of the 105-ton figure; it is especially useful because of the way the group is set up: a little counter-intuitively. This is the Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force, a little odd as an integral unit both for geographic reasons and because Oregon and Idaho have such different drug regimes and issues. The contrast is also useful, because the differences between the two help shed a little light on the challenges each of the states face.
The task force focuses its efforts on 16 counties (a dozen in Oregon) and four Indian reservations (two in each state). Most of these house local-regional “initiatives.” Statewide, Oregon reported a drop in arrests over drug offenses from 10,684 in 2020 to 4,892 in 2021; the report suggested the passage of Measure 110, which decriminalized some personal possession of illegal drugs, may have been a reason. While not a strict comparison, Idaho reported that of more than 8,000 inmates in its correction system, the largest portion (34.7%) was behind bars for drug crimes, a contrasting picture.
Although the legal scene was very different, the task force’s Drug Threat Assessment sounded very much the same for both states when it came to specific problem areas.
“Fentanyl and methamphetamine were the most significant threats to Oregon and Idaho during 2021 based on drug seizures, drug related death data, initiative interviews, and surveys conducted in early 2022. The 18 Oregon-Idaho HIDTA enforcement initiatives based their survey responses on a criterion of drug availability, impact on caseload and community impact,” the report said.
That message coincides with recent reports from other regions showing shifts of trafficking in rural areas.
It went on: “One-third of HIDTA initiatives listed methamphetamine as their single greatest drug threat, while one third stated fentanyl alone as their greatest threat. However, three task forces stated that fentanyl and methamphetamine pose an equal threat in their jurisdictions. Sixteen initiatives identified methamphetamine as being the most available substance in their jurisdiction – either individually or in combination with other drugs.”
Those substances were reported by far as the largest problem area across both states, and both seem to be less affected by the law changes in Oregon than a number of substances illegal in one state but not, or less so, in the other. The report said that fentanyl trafficking into Oregon increased massively in 2021.
There was also this: “The Oregon State Police (OSP) forensic laboratory statistics for 2021 showed 50.7% of the samples submitted for analysis were methamphetamine. Heroin made up another 17.6% of submitted samples. Fentanyl accounted for 8.9% of samples. Cocaine and cannabis/THC each were roughly 3% of submitted samples. Another 2% of samples contained multiple drugs. Finally, all other drug types represented 13% of samples.” In Idaho, “methamphetamine represented 43% of samples analyzed in 2021, while marijuana was 23.5%. Heroin accounted for 8.8% of samples and fentanyl or fentanyl analogues were 5%.”
As for marijuana, law enforcement in both states this year continue to report significant amounts of illegal marijuana and cannabis extracts, though just a quarter of enforcement officers surveyed indicate “a rise in prevalence.” Prices for the illicit goods continue to fall, they said, especially in southern Oregon, where some of the largest illegal grow operations have been reported.
What to make of this?
No doubt more effort is going to be needed to go after illegal marijuana operations. (Is there some temptation to grow in a state where, the theory may be, the illegal product can be hidden among the legal?) Still, the ability of law enforcement to focus on the big traffickers rather than individual users may account in part for their success in cracking some of the large operations.
The task force’s report may in effect be a call to think carefully about where the most serious problems are, and how we measure them – hopefully, in context.
This column first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.
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