Why Oregon’s new drug laws won’t apply everywhere

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Warm Springs police chief warns drug possession will still be illegal on tribal land

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon’s new drug decriminalization law is being heralded as a first-of-its-kind experiment, but it won’t apply to all land within the state.

Measure 110 decriminalizes possession of personal-use amounts of drugs and requires a large chunk of existing tax dollars to be re-allocated to drug treatment.

The day after the election, Warm Springs Tribal Police Chief Bill Elliott announced current tribal and federal drug statutes would remain in place on the reservation. So if you’re traveling through tribal land and get caught with any amount of drugs, you could be arrested and charged.

“Whether they go to the casino, whether they just are visiting friends, you know, doing a tourist type thing, we just wanna make sure that they don’t inadvertently bring with them like 2 grams of cocaine,” Elliott said. “Because on the reservation, that would be an enforceable act.”

Tribal land is subject to three different categories of law, and the rules you’re subject to can differ depending on who you are. State laws apply to non-Native violators when they’re on the reservation, Elliott said. Federal statutes apply to anyone on the reservation, and tribal law applies to enrolled tribal members while they’re on tribal land.

Map of Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes (Oregon Health Authority)

A spokesperson for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, which owns and operates Spirit Mountain Casino, told KOIN 6 News they were still reviewing the election results and didn’t have a statement on what Measure 110 means for their community.

Drugs are still officially off limits on Chinook Winds Casino Resort property in Lincoln City, according to a lawyer representing the casino, which is formally part of the Siletz Reservation.

Chinook Winds Casino file image (Chinook Winds)

“The Tribe’s laws, which generally prohibit use and possession of drugs and alcohol on tribal lands (the Tribe has made a specific exception for alcohol on Casino Resort Property), would apply, and people should be careful about possession of such substances on tribal lands,” attorney Craig J. Dorsay wrote in an email to KOIN 6 News. “They can and will be trespassed, and may be subject to prosecution.”

The Warm Springs Reservation is the largest in the state and encompasses about 1,000 square miles of land, extending into five counties. Elliott said tribal leadership strives for continuity in the laws as much as possible.

“If you have a tribal member and a non-tribal member in the same car, how fair is it to arrest the tribal member and then the other person walk free?” Elliott said. “That’s not right.”

Like many of the measure’s opponents, Elliott argues drug laws give tribal authorities a tool to intervene and help addicts get treatment. Many drug abusers are unlikely to self-seek help, he said, and he would worry about a potential increase in crimes like burglaries and assaults if hard drugs were to be decriminalized on the reservation.

“Some of the drugs that were (decriminalized), at least in our area, kind of lend toward more violent activity,” he said, specifically singling out meth possession, which he said often goes hand-in-hand with other crimes like domestic violence and child abuse.

Measure 110 appeared on the ballot during a year defined by conversations about race and criminal justice in America.

Months before the election, state lawmakers requested a racial impact analysis of the bill for the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission (CJC). The commission projected dramatic decreases in total drug possession convictions (90.7%), with Native Americans seeing the largest overall decrease (94.2%).

The CJC does not expect the decisions of tribes to have an impact on the predicted reduction, mainly because the CJC does not receive or report on tribal or federal data.

It’s also difficult to find tribe- and reservation-specific data regarding drug-use because sovereign nations own their own health data. However, Native Americans die of alcohol, tobacco and drug-related causes at more than twice the rate of white Oregonians, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

Warm Springs Tribal Police Chief Bill Elliott said drug possession will remain illegal on the reservation, despite the passage of Measure 110 (via Zoom)

“I won’t lie to you. It is a problem,” Elliott said of drug-use on the reservation. “Over this last year we’ve had 27 drug arrests, but we’ve also had 220+ medical priority calls involving drug overdoses on the reservation. Which, for a population of our size (around 6,000 people), is significant.”

With the ongoing pandemic, loss of jobs, and overall sense of despair, Elliott doesn’t expect the problem to get better soon.

“Things have been hard,” he said. “People that have a propensity to turn to drugs are going to turn to drugs and again that’s why we kind of want to make sure that there’s not an introduction of drugs onto the reservation.”

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