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Oregon ranked sixth out of all states in rates of illicit drug use in 2013 and 2014, according to federal statistics.

A total of 287 people died from drug-related deaths in Oregon in 2015, which was an increase from 2014. Several drugs have contributed to that trend. Heroin overdose deaths remain a cause for concern, and deaths related to meth use are on the rise. Oregon also ranked fourth in the United States in nonmedical prescription opiate use. It had led all states in rates of prescription drug misuse in 2012.

People in Oregon also use legal substances frequently. Alcohol-related deaths increased between 2001 and 2014, and Oregon has a higher rate of DUI fatalities than the United States as a whole. Rates of marijuana use in Oregon were already high before the state voted to legalize recreational use of the drug in 2014.

Second to One, Oregon Marijuana Use on the Rise

In 2014, Oregon residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana, but the state has viewed marijuana favorably since the 1960s. Large numbers of Oregonians have a neutral or positive impression of marijuana use. About 18 percent of the state’s residents believe that marijuana use is risky, according to a 24/7 Wall St. report. The report found that between 2013 and 2014, the years before recreational marijuana was legalized, Oregon had the second highest rate of marijuana consumption in the country. In a 2016 column in The Oregonian, a reporter joked that it was just a matter of time before the state led the nation. “Guess who’s No. 1,” journalist Lizzy Acker wrote. “Yeah, it’s Colorado. Don’t worry, guys. We’ll get there.”

About 18 percent of the state’s residents believe that marijuana use is risky, according to a 24/7 Wall St. report.

Oregon has been at the forefront of the marijuana legalization movement since the ‘60s. The state was early to decriminalize marijuana possession, create a medical marijuana program and to legalize recreational use. Oregon had a mature marijuana industry at the time of legalization. In the 1990s, the launch of medical marijuana accelerated the expansion of marijuana grows and allowed marijuana businesses and co-ops to establish storefronts. Soon after recreational legalization, the state government allowed medical businesses to sell retail pot until recreational-only stores opened in 2016. Unfortunately, many Oregon residents suffer from marijuana addiction. In 2014, 13.6 percent of people who sought help for drug addiction were addicted to marijuana.

With Fatalities on the Rise, Oregon Creates Plan to Address Alcohol Abuse

Deaths related to alcohol use have been slowly increasing since 2001, per the Oregon Health Authority. That year, 31 out of every 100,000 people in Oregon died from alcohol-related causes, including alcohol-related diseases, alcohol poisoning and injuries such as car accidents. In 2014, 41 out of every 100,000 people died alcohol-related deaths for a total of 1,639 deaths. The Oregon Health Authority’s 2015–2019 health improvement plan included recommendations to prevent alcohol-related fatalities.
The approaches included:
  • Screening adults for mental health and substance use disorders
  • Increasing alcohol taxes
  • Improving enforcement of laws prohibiting sales to minors
Binge drinking — consuming more than five drinks on one occasion — is associated with alcohol-related harms. In 2012, an estimated 15 percent of all adults reported binge drinking at least once in the past 30 days in Oregon. The stats for teens are more alarming. An estimated 16.5 percent of 11th-graders reported binge drinking in the past 30 days in 2015. Boys were slightly more likely to binge drink than girls. The majority of teens who drank alcohol drank either liquor or beer, and most teens said it would be very easy or sort of easy to get alcohol if they wanted it.

After Leading the U.S. in Opioid Abuse, Prescription Drug Use Declining

Oregon was one of the states that was hit hardest by the national opioid epidemic. From 2010 to 2012, the state had the highest rate of nonmedical prescription opioid use in the country. Prescription opioid deaths and hospitalizations have declined since peaking in 2011, but they still outnumber heroin overdoses and hospitalizations in the state. An estimated 139 deaths were caused by the prescription painkillers in 2014.
That year:
Fortunately, the majority of teens have stayed away from prescription drug abuse. Less than 8 percent of 11th-graders misused any prescription drug, including opioids, ADHD medications and tranquilizers such as Xanax or Ritalin. A majority of 11th-graders said it would be very hard or sort of hard to get prescription drugs that weren’t prescribed to them. Prescription opioids are narcotics that are chemically similar to heroin. Prescription opioid misuse can lead to heroin use if a person develops an addiction to the drugs.

Portland Combats Heroin, But Other Towns Lack Resources

Oregon’s history of heroin use has been documented in popular culture. Portland film director Gus Van Sant depicted street hustling and drug use in “Drugstore Cowboy,” and Portland resident and musician Elliott Smith wrote songs about the heroin addiction that he and his contemporaries suffered from. Heroin use decreased in Portland in the 2000s, but it came back with a vengeance around the same time the prescription opioid crisis began.Portland health officials have worked hard to save lives by distributing naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdoses, to the community. Portland has also passed proactive, nonjudgmental drug policies. Needle exchange programs have saved dozens of lives since they were put in place in recent years. Across the state, heroin addiction is still a major problem. About 12 percent of people seeking treatment for addiction in Oregon sought treatment for heroin addiction in 2012. That rate grew to 19 percent in 2014. The rural areas where heroin use has become common do not have the resources that Portland possesses. Since 2010, heroin use has jumped dramatically in Astoria, Bend and Medford. Despite community efforts, the scope and scale of the problem has overwhelmed many towns.
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Meth Remains Top Drug Threat in Oregon

Methamphetamine is Oregon’s largest and most persistent illicit drug problem. Apart from alcohol, more people sought treatment for amphetamine use in Oregon in 2014 than any other drug. Amphetamine use includes illicit drugs such as crystal meth and prescription stimulants such as Adderall or Ritalin. In 2015, meth was involved in 202 deaths in Oregon. People who use drugs intravenously have started to use heroin and meth together, which may explain the surge in meth-related fatalities. Both drugs are dangerous, and they’re more deadly when combined. International drug trafficking organizations are making meth easier to access in the state. For the last decade, law enforcement has made large-scale meth production inside the United States nearly impossible. International trafficking organizations have filled the void. Those cartels are also Oregon’s primary heroin suppliers. Some people who use illicit drugs say dealers give them samples of the drugs to encourage them to start using something new.

Mexican Drug Trafficking Infiltrating Oregon

Oregon has become a major conduit for interstate drug traffickers. Mexican organized crime groups are the primary suppliers of drugs to the state, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Most of the Northwest’s drug supply passes through Oregon, particularly on Interstate 5. The DEA has designated the freeway as one of the eight major drug trafficking corridors in the United States.

Mexican organized crime groups are the primary suppliers of drugs to the state, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Drugs are driven up I-5 from the U.S.-Mexico border. When they arrive in Oregon, some drugs are sent to towns across the state. Other drugs are repackaged or redirected to central Washington, Idaho and Montana.

Some drug traffickers avoid patrols and traffic stops on I-5 and use alternate routes such as U.S. 97 to avoid detection and arrest. They’ve also dispersed their operations to prevent disruption in their supply.

Other drug shipment methods include Portland’s airport and Oregon’s freight railways. Drug shipments from Asia have been routed through Oregon. In 2015, federal agents prosecuted drug traffickers who allegedly shipped fentanyl and other synthetic drugs into Oregon.

Oregon has a major challenge on its hands. The state must find a way to help the people who have developed substance use disorders. The Beaver State is known for kindness and open-mindedness , and those qualities will be essential for the state’s communities to turn the tide against drug trafficking and addiction.

Medical Disclaimer: aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson,
Peter Johnson is a writer and journalist who has covered politics, policy, and social issues for outlets like The Atlantic and The Stranger. He contributed to an award-winning series about the opioid addiction epidemic in 2010 as a researcher with InvestigateWest.

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