Prosecutor Ryan Lufkin is scrambling for ways to combat the disturbing number of people who die each year from heroin overdoses. Lufkin started documenting the sad circumstances of each of these deaths in Multnomah County and has a binder full: 52 in 2010, and at least 70 in 2011.
The threat of jail – and court orders to attend drug treatment – just isn’t doing the job.
Today Lufkin will urge legislators in Salem to consider expanding the definition of the mentally ill to include heroin addicts, paving the way for the state to hold a hearing to “commit” or force repeat users into inpatient or outpatient drug treatment within days of arrest, before they’re released from jail.
Prosecutors say the current system of sentencing heroin addicts to drug treatment at the time of conviction fails because months can pass between arrest and conviction as many addicts skip court dates.
HB 4022 would finance drug treatment with state money that now pays for jail time — about $93 a day.
The measure would apply at first only to those who’ve been arrested with two prior heroin-possession convictions within the last five years. In Multnomah County, where more than half the state’s heroin overdoses occur, that would affect about 16 people a year.
The legislation wouldn’t solve the shortage of inpatient beds, but Lufkin hopes that addicts will get immediate help – such as outpatient treatment and methadone –while they wait for an inpatient bed.
The bill is opposed by some public defenders, Disability Rights Oregon and ACLU of Oregon.
Alex Bassos, training director for Metropolitan Public Defender, commends prosecutors for trying to prevent overdose deaths, “but the way they have written this particular statute is a criminalization of civil commitment in a way that is horrifying and probably unconstitutional.”
Bassos said if the state is going to force someone into treatment outside the criminal justice system, it should do so based not on criminal history, but based on evidence that the person is likely to overdose in the near future.
Lufkin says the legislation goes out of the way not to punish heroin addicts, instead it aims to quickly get them the help they need. Lufkin said that during a civil commitment hearing, the state would still need to prove the person was likely to continue to put themselves at risk of deadly overdoses without drug treatment.
Over the past few years, Lufkin has compiled a binder documenting the people who died from overdoses in the state’s most populous county. They range widely in age, income and education –even the college educated fell victim to the drug.
Many were discovered flat on their faces next to a brown-tar-like substance and a syringe – the powerful central-nervous-system depressant knocked them unconscious within seconds.
Many died at home, but some were found in some very public places: a downtown sidewalk, a field next to a North Portland elementary School, the restroom at a Safeway in the Hawthorne district or Panda Express on North Lombard Street.
Lufkin shows the binder to heroin users, to drill home the message that they’re on a deadly path.
“Frankly, (the number of deaths) is becoming so overwhelming that I’m going to have to start another binder,” Lufkin said during the sentencing earlier this week of a Gresham drug dealer who sold a Troutdale man a fatal dose of heroin last summer.
Regardless of how the bill fares, all parties agree it highlights the need for solutions.
“I don’t know when our community is really going to figure out how many we have dying and how little resources we have devoted to it,” said Multnomah County Judge Michael McShane, who sentenced the Gresham drug dealer to about 6 years in prison. While not speaking specifically about the bill, McShane shares Lufkin’s frustration.
“It sounds like he’s talking to the wind sometimes,” McShane said.
According to statistics from the Oregon State Medical Examiner, the number of heroin-related deaths dropped from 127 in 2009 to 90 in 2010. Figures for 2011 aren’t yet available.
But Lufkin says authorities in Clackamas and Washington counties tell him anecdotally they’ve seen an upswing. And if Multnomah County’s deaths are any indicator, he suspects the state may see an increase once again.