How a New Oregon Law Might Eventually Decriminalize Addiction

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10 November 2020 10:03 EST
By making dependence on hard drugs a matter of public health rather than criminal law, Oregon could aid in ending the war on drugs.
Measure 110, also known as the Drug Addiction and Recovery Act, will decriminalize cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, (non-prescribed) oxycodone, and a number of other currently illegal drugs in Oregon on February 21, 2021. A person caught in possession of a non-commercial amount of marijuana will be subject to a fine of up to $100, which they can avoid by seeking treatment. Effectively, Oregon has become the first state to decriminalize so-called hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, which are typically associated with physical and psychological dependence. The addictive nature of these drugs bolsters the argument that their use should be viewed as a health issue, not a criminal one. If the measure has the same effect in Oregon as it did in Portugal, where similar strategies have been implemented, it will not only reduce drug arrests and overdose rates, but it will also have a positive effect on broader and more systemic issues such as racial injustice. Measure 110’s passage could mark the beginning of the end of the drug war if other states are motivated to follow Oregon’s example.
The creation of Measure 110 was based on compelling modern research. Portugal employed a similar strategy in 2001 to combat its drug and drug-related disease epidemic by decriminalizing drugs and reorienting national discourse. A 2015 study on the strategy found that the social cost per capita of drug abuse, primarily medical and legal expenses for overdoses and arrests, decreased by 18 percent in Portugal, while the number of individuals incarcerated for drug-related offenses decreased by 20 percent. Some individuals are optimistic that Oregon will experience similar outcomes. EcoNorthwest, a consulting firm, estimates that the cost of prosecuting a misdemeanor drug case can be as much as three times the cost of treatment. Additionally, the Portugal strategy led to a significant decrease in overdoses and overdose deaths, as well as a reduction in the overall spread of infectious diseases. With 71,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2019 alone, decisive action is long overdue.
Matt Sutton is a spokesperson for the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based organization responsible for the creation and promotion of Measure 110. According to Sutton, Measure 110 will not waste resources by mandating treatment for individuals struggling with addiction who are not prepared to seek assistance, but will instead expand treatment options and access for those who are. The treatment options will include not only abstinence-based programs such as detox and rehabilitation, but also alternative treatments such as medication-assisted therapy and employment and housing resources. Another innovative aspect of the measure is the funding for these programs: The funds will come from taxing the recreational marijuana industry in Oregon. Since the tax revenue from recreational marijuana in Oregon significantly exceeded the state’s initial projection of between $17 million and $40 million per year, the reform redirects any tax revenue exceeding $45 million to addiction treatment services.
Measure 110 brings us to the brink of sweeping change: For the first time in U.S. history, a drug reform proposal has the potential to decriminalize addiction. In Oregon, overdose rates are expected to decline. There will be cost savings and expanded access to treatment. It is comparable to the 1996 legalization of medical marijuana in California and the 2012 legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington. Both events were turning points in the war on drugs, inspiring conservative and liberal states across the nation to adopt similar policies in the years that followed.
This change could not have arrived soon enough. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two of the most heinous instances of racial injustice that have occurred this year, may not have occurred if drugs had not been criminalized. The criminal justice system uses drug laws as an excuse to police and imprison people of color at such disproportionate rates in the United States that they are frequently referred to as the modern equivalent of Jim Crow. According to the Bureau of Justice, blacks are nearly six times more likely than whites to be incarcerated for drug crimes, despite using drugs at roughly the same rate. The disenfranchisement of black Americans as a result of the drug war and the toll it takes on successive generations of black families is one of the most prominent causes of our current racial-injustice crisis.
Sutton predicted a cascade of efforts across the nation, with other states implementing policies that prioritize public health and people over criminalization. Currently, the DPA is assisting similar initiatives in Washington, Vermont, and California. They have introduced a federal framework for total drug decriminalization and will soon identify a congressional sponsor. Despite the fact that two Democratic presidential candidates, Andrew Yang and Beto ORourke, have expressed support for a federal drug policy similar to Measure 110, it appears that at least some politicians recognize the benefits of implementing such policies on a national scale.
The problems associated with substance abuse have become so urgent that this seemingly radical measure was approved by a 17-point margin. Almost every American, including our incoming president, has a personal connection to either the harrowing effects of our nation’s drug laws or the devastation of addiction. Joe Biden’s history of governing on these issues is tumultuous, but it occurred before he became one of the many Americans personally affected by this crisis. Empathy is one of Biden’s most obvious strengths. If our new president is committed to ushering in a new era of healing, drug decriminalization and criminal-justice reform represent the way forward. And Oregon may have just paved the way in this direction.


Decriminalizing cocaine, heroin, and other opioids means that the U.S. is starting to treat addiction as a health issue, not a criminal one.