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Addiction to drugs, alcohol deepens in Oregon, report shows

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By LYNNE TERRY/Oregon Capital Chronicle — Oregon has the worst drug addiction rate in the country, federal data show.

The latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health said that 9% of teens and adults were addicted to drugs in 2020. About 12% of Oregonians aged 12 and older said they had an alcohol problem. That compares with nearly 7% in 2019.

Combined, they gave Oregon the second-worst overall addiction rate nationwide, with nearly one in five teens and adults reporting a problem with drugs or alcohol.

Montana came first, but just by a fraction.

The previous year, Oregon ranked fifth, with 9% of people aged 12 and older reporting an addiction problem.

The survey, published annually by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, looked at alcohol, prescription opioids and illicit drugs like methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin.

Oregon ranked last statewide in 2020 for access to treatment for drug addiction, with 18% of teens and adults unable to get treated, compared with nearly 9% in 2019.

The report, based on in-person and online surveys, did not surprise specialists. Overdose deaths in Oregon are going up, and the number of providers has shrunk.

According to an Oregon Health Authority report, nearly 700 people in Oregon died from a drug overdose in 2020, a 30% increase from 2019. Residential treatment programs have accepted fewer people to comply with social distancing rules, while spending more on masks and other protective gear. They’ve also faced staffing shortages.

“The pandemic has really hurt a number of programs,” said Reginald Richardson Sr., executive director of Oregon’s Drug and Alcohol Policy Commission. “We only have one adolescent program left in the state.”

Last year, Oregon’s residential addiction treatment facilities lost about 150 beds for adults and children, according to a presentation to a state House legislative committee last week by David Baden, the Oregon Health Authority’s chief financial officer. The health authority did not say how many beds were left.

In 2020, people who were isolated at home often turned to drugs and alcohol, Richardson said, while the Oregon Health Authority, which is tasked with fighting addiction, was focused on the pandemic.

“They have devoted most of their resources to that,” Richardson said.

But even before the pandemic, Oregon failed to tackle the state’s addiction problem, experts say.

“Our state spends less than 1% of our total budget on prevention,” Richardson said. “We need to do more for prevention so folks don’t take drugs in the first place.”

In 2018, Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order, declaring addiction a public health crisis. She appointed Richardson to the commission, and two years ago he completed a plan outlining steps to address the growing number of addicted Oregonians. The commission proposed increasing quick access to treatment so that people can get immediate help when they realize they have a problem. Getting into a treatment facility can take weeks and during that time people can lose their desire for treatment.

“When a person is ready for treatment, they have to have access to it right now,” Richardson said.

The plan also called for devoting more resources to recovery, such as funding peer support efforts.

Addiction specialists welcomed the plan, but they say little of it has advanced.

“Governor Brown continues to ignore our addiction crisis and has taken no action to implement the plan,” said Mike Marshall, executive director of Oregon Recovers, an advocacy group pushing for more resources for treatment and prevention.

Role of Measure 110

A spokesman for Brown’s office disputed that point in a statement to the Capital Chronicle. Charles Boyle, deputy communications officer, said Brown considers addiction prevention, treatment and recovery services to be “among her top priorities.”

Drug and alcohol addiction and overdoses “remain persistent, costly and devastating problems for Oregonians, with far-reaching impacts on our children and families,” the statement read.

The statement said Brown is working with the state Justice Department to secure more money for behavioral health through lawsuits against opioid manufacturers. The statement said that Measure 110, which was approved by voters in 2020 and decriminalized drug possession, had funneled $31 million into treatment programs.

A report from the health authority said that money helped more than 16,000 people. But less than 1% was used to get patients into treatment, according to a pie chart showing the breakdown in spending for nearly 11,000 people. Nearly 60% was used for harm reduction services, which includes things like needle exchange services to prevent the spread of disease and the distribution of naloxone kits to reverse opioid overdoses. About 15% went towards housing assistance.

The Oversight and Accountability Council, which oversees the implementation of Measure 110, has earmarked another $280 million for the creation of behavioral health centers in every county, but those centers are being developed.

“We decriminalized substances without ensuring that we had a robust treatment system,” Richardson said.

Measure 110 will not solve Oregon’s addiction problem, Marshall said.

“Many Oregonians and lawmakers believe that Measure 110 funding will help address the addiction crisis by expanding access to treatment,” Marshall said. “But Measure 110 funding cannot be used for prevention, nor will it fund any new treatment beds.”

What Oregon needs is a focus on prevention, Richardson said. Every dollar spent on prevention saves $7 in dealing with addiction, he said.

“We will never treat our way out of this situation,” Richardson said.

In recent years, the health authority has focused on stemming the misuse of prescription opioids. The health authority established a monitoring program that tracks opioid prescriptions by provider, and since 2015 prescriptions per capita have dropped.

But the problem has not gone away. In 2019, Oregon had the highest rate of misuse per capita of prescription opioids in the country – and it still does, according to the federal survey.

Oregon also has a methamphetamine problem that is getting worse. In 2019, about 1% of teens and adults used meth, the sixth highest rate in the country. That jumped to nearly 2% in 2020, the worst ranking nationwide.

Heroin use has fallen, however:  Oregon now ranks 11th nationwide compared with sixth in 2019 – as has cocaine use, with the state falling from third to seventh place.

But the rate of alcohol addiction nearly doubled in 2020 with states seeing a similar rise in problem drinking.

Richardson said the passage of some recent laws in Oregon have not helped. For example, last year the Legislature approved the sale of cocktails to go, and allowed wider sale of kegs of beer and packaged beer, wine and cider.

“Although there have been addiction resources provided, they don’t go far enough and they haven’t been effective,” Richardson said. “People now have easier access to alcohol.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle is a nonprofit Salem-based news service that focuses its reporting on Oregon state government, politics and policy.



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