On Aug. 7 the Central Oregon Drug Enforcement Team arrested a man suspected of trafficking fentanyl to homeless encampments along China Hat Road. Three days later CODE arrested a La Pine woman who is accused of distributing fentanyl around Deschutes and Klamath counties. In both cases, press releases about the arrests included information about House Bill 2646, a law that increases sentencing for fentanyl-related crimes and lowers the amount defining a "commercial quantity" of fentanyl.
The bill defines a commercial quantity as 5 grams or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of fentanyl or 25 or more "user units," such as pills. Previously, the possession of fentanyl was a Class E violation until someone had more than 50 grams of fentanyl. Violations are the most minor offenses in the criminal system and have no threat of jail time. Measure 110 decriminalized small quantities of all drugs, leaving people to either pay a $100 fine or enter a drug rehabilitation program.
"Most importantly, on the backside of it, when someone goes to court, it offers some accountability, and the courts will then be able to impose mandatory drug counseling. Whereas with Measure 110, there's nothing mandatory about anything, Measure 110 was completely voluntary," said Kent van der Kamp, a sergeant at CODE. "So, now we're able to send people to rehab or hold them accountable or put them under supervision to see how they're progressing and their sobriety."
Fentanyl, a relatively new drug in the black market, didn't have a statute in Oregon law like heroine, meth or cocaine. In 2018 the Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area only recorded the seizure of 27 seizures of fentanyl. In 2022 it recorded over 1,000 seizures, that included over 30 million doses of the drug. The Oregon Health Authority said the spike in overdose deaths are largely driven by misuse of fentanyl, though methamphetamine overdoses still make up a considerable and steady portion of Oregon's overdose deaths. The inclusion of user-units also makes it simpler to charge for the crime of possession, since fentanyl is often sold as pressed pills.
"The pills that we're capturing are coming to us either with no fentanyl in them, or up to 7, 8, and we've even seen some with 11 milligrams of fentanyl in it," van der Kamp said. "That's what's turned this into a modern-day version of Russian Roulette is because people who eat these pills or smoke them, they just don't know what they're using anymore."
In medical situations an average adult would be administered just a couple of micrograms of fentanyl, rather than the milligrams found in illicitly manufactured pills. The supply chain of fentanyl usually starts in China and is then sent to Latin American cartels to be manufactured into pills. Its fast rise is attributed to the cheap cost of production and the ease with which it can be smuggled compared to traditional opiates. That translates to a cheaper street product and changing consumer preferences.
"It's supply and demand. Really the market changed," van der Kamp said. "Three years ago, I can tell you heroin was very popular. It was easy to find working on the streets. It was very rare that we didn't see it with an opioid user and then fentanyl really came in hard. And now, heroin is very rare. In fact, I think we saw our first heroin on a trafficking case just maybe two months ago now, and we hadn't seen heroin in a long time."