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Editorials from around Oregon

January 23, 2019

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:


Mail Tribune, Jan. 22, on fentanyl bringing new urgency to drug deaths:

The crisis of opioid addiction has captured the attention of the public, lawmakers and the medical community. But at the same time that progress is being made against over-prescribing opioid painkillers, street drugs laced with fentanyl are becoming more common and more deadly.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid much more powerful than heroin and far cheaper, leading drug traffickers to add it to batches of street heroin to increase profits. Users have no idea when heroin they buy has been adulterated with fentanyl, and the drug is so powerful that a tiny amount is deadly. Even more alarming, fentanyl has been turning up in non-opioid street drugs, including methamphetamine and cocaine.

As a result of the attention paid to the opioid epidemic, overdose deaths from prescription oxycontin have dropped to sixth place in the U.S. Heroin was the second-most deadly drug in 2016. Fentanyl was number one. And deaths attributed to fentanyl overdoses are on the rise.

In 2011, fentanyl was involved in 4 percent of overdose deaths. Five years later, the figure was 29 percent, resulting in more than 18,000 deaths.

Why drug traffickers would lace heroin with fentanyl is fairly easy to figure out. It’s far cheaper than heroin, and has a similar depressant effect. Why cocaine, a stimulant, would be laced with an opioid is less obvious. Drug experts have suggested it may be simple carelessness: traffickers cutting a batch of heroin using the same surfaces and equipment to process cocaine without cleaning it first.

Regardless of the reason, fentanyl clearly poses an extreme risk, especially to a cocaine abuser who may be unaccustomed to the effects of opioid use. That’s why it’s more important than ever to get naloxone, which can save lives by reversing the effects of overdose, into the hands of police officers and drug users. A chilling account in Monday’s paper described a Jan. 12 incident in Chico, California, where responding officers were able to save 12 of 13 overdose victims by administering naloxone. Police believe fentanyl was involved.

The local nonprofit group Max’s Mission, which distributes free naloxone, is also offering test strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl in other drugs. The group will give away test strips and naloxone kits and provide instruction in using them from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Medford library.

It’s not a perfect solution — getting users to stop taking opioids and other illicit drugs is the long-term goal. But addiction treatment can’t help a drug user who dies of an overdose.


East Oregonian, Jan. 21, on the elephant in the room:

As the Oregon Legislature prepared to start work this week, its leaders were saying all the right things about working together, respecting rural Oregon and doing what was best for the state as a whole.

But, as the saying goes, “only time will tell.”

In the Oregon House, the Democratic and Republican leadership have a more collegial relationship than in the past. In the Senate, it seems prickly.

Democrats gained supermajorities in the House and Senate, which enables them to pass tax increases without needing any Republican votes — if all Democrats stick together, which is never a sure thing. Some legislative issues, such as potential changes in sentencing laws, have an even higher threshold for passage. In any case, Democrats cannot conduct business unless enough Republicans are present for a quorum.

Through the leadership of Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, the Senate has acted as a moderating influence on proposals emanating from the more-liberal House. But the November elections swung the Senate to the left, and Courtney worries about how he will balance the expectations of progressive Democrats with the need to work collaboratively with Republicans.

“We cannot do this, Democrats, without Republicans. You gotta understand that,” Courtney said at the annual Associated Press Legislative Preview on Friday. “We cannot do this without Republicans. Without the elephants in the room — another way to put it — the donkeys can’t do it.”

The question is whether the 90 legislators, as well as Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, will give more than lip service to that collaboration.

The early signs are positive. They almost always are at the start of a legislative session.

Legislators went through civility training last week. Equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans will serve on the joint legislative committee charged with improving the Oregon Capitol culture and overcoming the specter of sexual harassment. Courtney appointed non-urban and urban senators — Democrats Betsy Johnson of Scappoose and Elizabeth Steiner Hayward of Beaverton — to jointly serve as the Senate’s budget leaders. He has introduced Senate Bill 2, with Republican Sens. Bill Hansell of Athena and Cliff Bentz of Ontario, which could be a breakthrough in providing greater land-use flexibility in Eastern Oregon.

It might also be a good sign that legislators are still trying to write the carbon cap-and-invest legislation, which progressives demand and conservatives dislike. Some Democratic legislators had long ago insisted that the legislation, known as Clean Oregon Jobs, was ready. Republicans have strived to make it less onerous for businesses and consumers.

Most bills passed by the Legislature are routine and have bipartisan support. Few of those will make headlines. But many contentious proposals — from taxes to firearms — likely will pit business vs. labor, rural vs. urban and minority Republicans vs. majority Democrats.

Those are the bills that will test legislators’ commitment to collaboration, to civility — and to the whole of Oregon.


The Register-Guard, Jan. 17, on Oregon needing to vote out split verdicts:

Oregon shares a sordid legal history with Louisiana. Propelled by racism and xenophobia, they were the only states to allow defendants to be convicted of serious crimes without a unanimous jury verdict.

Our state now stands alone. Prodded by excellent reporting and editorial leadership from The Advocate newspaper, Louisiana voters this fall overwhelmingly amended their state constitution to require unanimous jury verdicts for all felony cases. Oregon should do the same, with the 2019 Legislature sending a constitutional amendment to voters.

Oregon requires a unanimous verdict by a 12-person jury on a murder charge but allows 11-1 and 10-2 verdicts for other felonies.

Despite being deemed constitutional in Oregon, split verdicts undermine the essential concept that a defendant be tried by a jury of his or her peers and that guilt be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The views of the one or two peers — the dissenting jurors — can be disregarded. Split verdicts tilt the legal equation in favor the prosecution.

A potential constitutional change appears to have strong support in the Oregon Legislature, including backing from the leaders of the Senate and House Judiciary committees — Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland.

A non-constitutional change also has been proposed; however, it seems wiser to amend the Oregon Constitution, which only voters can do, and remove any doubt as to the legality of the change.

Opponents contend that split verdicts aid efficiency in the court system and provide justice for victims by reducing the number of hung juries. But the judicial system must be fair to all, which split verdicts are not.

Non-unanimous verdicts are delivered by more than 40 percent of Oregon felony juries, an Oregon Law Review article by Aliza B. Kaplan and Amy Saack states. That high percentage raises concerns about whether the jurors examined the case in as much depth as if a unanimous verdict were necessary.

Our state’s rationale for split verdicts was never good. “Oregonians became angry that a Jewish man accused of killing a Protestant was spared a murder conviction and death sentence because a single juror held out for manslaughter,” according to Kaplan and Saack.

That sounds like how the judicial system is supposed to work. Jurors decide based on the evidence and testimony instead of yielding to peer pressure. But in that era of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism and anti-immigrant feelings, Oregon voters in 1934 amended the constitution to allow 10 jurors to render a verdict in most felonies.

An Oregon newspaper editorial, among many that endorsed that amendment at the time, said, “the vast immigration into America from southern and eastern Europe, of people untrained in the jury system, have combined to make the jury of twelve increasingly unwieldy and unsatisfactory.”

Oregon had followed Louisiana’s lead, which also was rooted in prejudice. Louisiana initiated non-unanimous verdicts in 1880 because black slaves had been freed and white landowners needed low-cost labor. “Making convictions easier meant more prisoners, especially freed blacks, and more prisoners meant more labor to lease for profit,” Kaplan and Sack wrote.

Oregon district attorneys supported the 1934 amendment. Today, many DAs support ending non-unanimous verdicts.

The Oregon Legislature sent the 1934 ballot measure to voters. The 2019 Legislature should do its part to rectify that wrong and ask voters the chance to do likewise.

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