When Oregon residents voted this fall, they weren't only weighing in on who they believe their national, state and local leaders should be. They were also tasked with deciding how law enforcement should treat those caught in possession of controlled substances like heroin and cocaine.
According to proponents of Measure 110, also known as the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, the effort that state law enforcement makes arresting those in possession of illegal drugs — more than 8,000 arrests in 2017 — would be better spent on community safety initiatives. The problem is, according to the act's sponsors, the same individuals are arrested for possession over and over rather than being offered treatment.
Oregonians voted the act into law this week by a majority of more than 58%, meaning personal, noncommercial possession of illegal drugs will be considered no more than a Class E violation, subject to a fine of no more than $100 or, under certain circumstances, completion of a health assessment. In addition to cocaine and heroin, the drugs include methamphetamine, oxycodone (without a prescription), opium, LSD, anabolic steroids, tranquilizers and peyote.
The act also expands treatment services available to Oregonians and requires that a portion of the state's marijuana tax revenue pay for those programs. First-year funding for treatment initiatives is set at $57 million, an amount that will increase annually thereafter.
But not everyone is a fan of decriminalizing hard drugs in Oregon. Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton told Fox 12 Oregon that the measure was "a terrible idea" and that it will result in increased crime and drug use.
Mike Salsgiver, executive director of the Associated General Contractors' Oregon-Columbia chapter, characterized the passage of the measure as "unfortunate."
"For our industry," he said, "anything that leads people to behave less safely is bad."
In addition to all of the job-related dangers construction workers face each day, like exposure to falls and struck-by hazards, they also are more likely to use cocaine and misuse opioids, according to a 2019 New York University study, and the second most likely to use marijuana. Some experts believe that workers turn to these illicit substances or abuse their opioid prescriptions in order to deal with pain from injuries they sustained on the job, while others chalk it up to the construction worker's tendency for risky behaviors.
Nevertheless, making it easier to use illegal substances is disconcerting, Salsgiver said, given the effort that industry employers and organizations, like the AGC, have put into raising awareness and trying to keep workers and project sites safe.
Labor issues compounded
And then there's the labor shortage. Last year, Oregon contractors reported a 70% to 80% drug testing failure rate among applicants after the decriminalization of marijuana, according to Salsgiver. Decriminalizing most other drugs could make that issue worse, he said.
"When you look at it from the standpoint of adding to or feeding the problem," he said, "you're trying to resolve the equivalent of building a 20-foot wall and [providing] a 10-foot ladder to climb it."
Despite the shift in public opinion, he said, the construction industry in Oregon has no choice but to continue to enforce a zero-tolerance policy for safety’s sake.
Construction leaders in several other states also are facing a new reality in the industry's fight against drug abuse. On Tuesday, New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and Arizona approved measures legalizing recreational marijuana and voters in Mississippi overwhelmingly approved the use of medical marijuana. With these initiatives, cannabis is now legal for medical use in three dozen states and for recreational use in 15.
Salsgiver said AGC-Columbia members have aggressive programs with messaging that reminds workers that drug use on the job will not be tolerated, so he expects that many will redouble their efforts in that regard as well as ramp up training.
AGC-Columbia also will continue to oppose efforts to force employers to accommodate personal drug use.
"Just because it's legal doesn’t mean its desirable or something you should do,” Salsgiver said.