Health

Amid fentanyl crisis, Oregon lawmakers propose more funding for opioid addiction medication in jails

Amid fentanyl crisis, Oregon lawmakers propose more funding for opioid addiction medication in jails

PORTLAND, Ore. — Kendra Sawyer spoke with her dad from the Deschutes County jail and told him she loved him. Six hours later, in the throes of opioid withdrawal, the 22-year-old took her own life.

A year later, Sawyer’s father, Kent, is left wondering whether his daughter, troubled as she was, might still be alive if the jail hadn’t failed to provide her with medicine to ease the agony of her withdrawal, as he claimed in a recently filed lawsuit.

“Kendra was screaming in pain and crying for hours and hours, and nobody was doing anything,” Sawyer said. “No one truly deserves to die in a painful way.”

Oregon jails could soon see a rise in the number of inmates struggling with opioid addiction like Kendra, if efforts are successful during this legislative session to roll back Measure 110, the state’s first-in-the-nation drug decriminalization law that legalized the possession of “personal use” amounts of illicit drugs such as heroin. In response, state lawmakers from both parties are pushing for more funding for medications used to treat opioid addiction in jails.

The measure, passed by voters in 2020, has come under fire as Oregon struggles with a fentanyl crisis that’s fueled one of the nation’s biggest spikes in overdose deaths, and overhauling it is a top priority during this year’s legislative session.

The latest proposal would allow jails seeking to create or expand medication treatment programs to apply for grants from a $10 million fund. It has bipartisan support and the backing of public health advocates and some in law enforcement.

“This is a policy that sets politics aside and that really is about what jails need to take care of people,” said Democratic state Rep. Pam Marsh, who drafted the measure. “If we are serious about providing treatment for people, it’s an obvious gap to fill.”

In Lincoln County, for example, the jail currently spends nearly $50,000 a month — or more than $1,600 a dose — on addiction medication for 30 inmates, Marie Gainer, the corrections sergeant who oversees the program, said in an email. The jail program on Oregon’s rural Pacific Coast, about 130 miles (210 kilometers) southwest of Portland, treated 91 inmates last year, she said.

Backers of jail-based treatment programs say they save lives by allowing people to continue or start recovery while incarcerated.

Roughly 60% of people in American jails have substance use disorders, federal data shows, and overdose is a leading cause of death for people…

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