The Oregon House of Representatives on Monday overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan measure aimed at preventing opioid overdoses that kill hundreds of Oregonians each year and account for a growing portion of the state’s addiction epidemic.
Dubbed the Opioid Harm Reduction Package and championed by Portland Representative and critical care physician Maxine Dexter, House Bill 2395 A would make life-saving emergency overdose treatments like naloxone more available in public buildings such as restaurants, grocery stores, police departments, and schools.
Deaths from opioid abuse have surged in Oregon in recent years. Last year, more than 745 Oregonians died from opioid overdoses, according to data from the Oregon Health Authority, compared to 280 two years earlier.
While the opioid epidemic is a nationwide problem, it is an especially urgent issue in Oregon, which ranks second in overall addiction rates — and last in access to treatment.
Naloxone, which is sold under various brand names including Narcan, can restore breathing and reverse an overdose by blocking the effects of opioids.
“Naloxone is extremely safe and effective and will help us save hundreds of lives,” Dexter said. “Even if you do not have opioids in your body, there’s no side effect or danger.
“Our responsibility as elected leaders is to ensure the health and safety of Oregonians. With this bill, we are building the infrastructure to respond to this crisis and giving Oregonians struggling with addiction a chance to receive treatment.”
Republicans and Democrats have clashed on drug policy at times this legislative session, with many GOP members calling on their colleagues to repeal aspects of Measure 110, the 2020 ballot measure that decriminalized low-level drug possession in Oregon.
But HB 2395 found broad support on both sides of the aisle, a sign of how deeply the opioid crisis has impacted Democrats and Republicans alike, and communities across the state of Oregon.
Representative James Hieb, of Canby, the first Republican to sign onto the measure, spoke last month of how he lost two brothers to opioid overdoses. On the House floor Monday, he shared a different story, of a family friend who survived an overdose thanks to being treated with Narcan by EMTs.
“He went through treatment and turned his life around,” Hieb said. “He now works a job making medical equipment. He has a house, car and is a contributing member of society. He has a fiancée who loves him, as well as a son who just turned 3.
“He named him Joseph after my little brother. Narcan gives people like Zandon a second chance at life.”
State Representative Ed Diehl, a Republican from Scio, lost a cousin and a close family friend to fentanyl.
“I can’t help but think that maybe if they’d been with someone with naloxone they would be alive today,” he said.
Diehl also shared the story of Courage Adibo Minten, a gifted athlete and promising student who died last year after taking a counterfeit pill that was laced with fentanyl.
“Fentanyl is not just killing frequent drug users,” Diehl said. “Sometimes, it’s kids who simply make one bad decision and pay for it with their lives.”
According to Democratic advocates of the opioid omnibus bill, people struggling with addiction who have access to harm-reduction tools are five times more likely to go into recovery.
“Over the past year, I’ve met with community members, families, law enforcement and first responders who’ve witnessed tragedy after tragedy — and too often, it’s vulnerable youth who are losing their lives to an unintentional overdose,” Bynum said. “This gives our communities the tools they need to respond and save lives.”
If passed by the Senate, the bill would allow the Oregon Health Authority to issue standing prescriptions for short-acting opioid antagonists for individual and public entities.
It would also decriminalize the distribution of fentanyl test strips and other tools shown to reduce the risk of overdose and drug-related deaths. The bill would shield anyone who chooses to administer naloxone, test strips or any available opioid antagonist from civil and criminal liability.
First responders will be able to distribute short-acting opioid antagonist kits to any individual who may need or request one, supporters said, freeing up their capacity to respond to other emergency situations and ensure better access to life-saving emergency treatments.
“A short-acting opioid antagonist is not a miracle cure for the deeper roots of addiction, but it is an incredibly easy-to-use, affordable tool that has one purpose: to reverse an overdose,” said Representative Dacia Grayber, a Democrat representing southwest Portland and Beaverton, and a firefighter/paramedic for over two decades.
“Making these opioid antagonists more available and accessible will, beyond all shadow of a doubt, save countless lives. And if we’re not here to do that, then what is our purpose in this work?”
The bill was supported by a majority of both parties in the House, as well as harm reduction advocates, law enforcement professionals and associations, clinicians, students, educators, local governments, and other stakeholders within the state’s public health system.
It passed by a vote of 48 to nine, with three members absent. HB 2395 A now heads to the Senate, where it has been assigned to the health care committee.
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