New Law in Oregon Decriminalizes All Drugs for Personal Use.
On February 1st, Oregon became the first state in the country to decriminalize so-called “hard drugs”.
Thanks to voter-approved ballot measure 110, passed in November 2020, police can no longer arrest individuals with a minor amount of drugs in their possession. Drugs such as methamphetamine (meth), heroin, LSD, cocaine, and oxycodone (oxy) are included in the measure.
Possession of hard drugs is no longer a criminal offense, meaning that people in Oregon will not be arrested if law enforcement determines that drugs are in their possession. However, that does not mean it’s legal.
Possession is now reduced to a Class E Misdemeanor. Police and law enforcement officers can issue a ticket with a $100 fine and offer addictions counseling when they come into contact with a person using hard drugs.
Oregon has always been a trailblazer in drug reform.
Marijuana possession was similarly decriminalized in Oregon back in 1973, the first state in the country to do so. The state was one of the first to legalize medical marijuana, and recreational marijuana became legal in 2015.
This was also a result of Oregon’s citizen-led voter initiative system which allows almost anyone to put a proposal on the ballet to change state laws. Ballet measures are subject to signature and other requirements. In a typical election, voters may review ten or more potential ballot measures.
Ballot measure 110 was proposed by the Drug Policy Alliance. It offered a shift from a punitive approach to a public health approach, where treatment is more widely available, and addiction is no longer a crime. It received widespread support from drug reform advocates across the country.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg also supported getting the measure passed.
Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, celebrated the victory saying, “Today, the first domino of our cruel and inhumane war on drugs has fallen, setting off what we expect to be a cascade of other efforts centering on health over decriminalization.
The “War on Drugs” is a remnant of the Nixon Administration. Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in June 1971. Drugs, Nixon asserted, were “public enemy number one”. While the War on Drugs, and subsequent “Just Say No” campaigns resulted in increased federal funding for reducing drug smuggling and increased drug treatment services, although funding has never been sufficient to meet demands.
The War on Drugs also created disparities in the justice system. People of color, particularly African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic or Latino populations are disproportionately arrested for drug infractions in the United States.
The intersectionality of drug use with homelessness, poverty, and poor physical health have exacerbated this issue.
The “3 strikes” laws that came out during the Clinton administration put tens of thousands of people behind bars. Some were recreational users of illegal drugs, but many suffered from addiction and other co-occurring disorders like mental illness.
Being arrested is not a deterrent for someone who is suffering from a substance abuse disorder.
People who left prison after drug convictions had a hard time getting back on their feet. Most prisoners leave incarcerations owing fines and fees to the court. Additionally, felony-level drug convictions prevent many people from voting, obtaining employment, and securing housing.
The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission estimates that 3,700 fewer Oregonians will be arrested for drug possession with the change in the law. The Commission noted that this will go a long way towards reducing disparities in arrest and conviction rates for people of color compared to their Caucasian counterparts. Their analysis predicts a 95% reduction in racial disparities for drug arrests.
Oregon’s decriminalization was met with stiff opposition from law enforcement and over twenty district attorneys from throughout the state. Opponents fear that by decriminalizing drugs there will be more violence, more car accidents, more drug overdose deaths, and more crime overall.
There was also concern that decriminalization of drugs would encourage children and teens to use hard drugs without the fear of arrest. This has not held true with the decriminalization of marijuana, where removing the draw of something being “forbidden” actually helped reduce teen drug use.
Although Oregon is considered a “blue state”, most of the state is actually conservative outside of the liberal strongholds of Portland and Eugene. Despite the ideological differences in politics, changing drug charges from a criminal to a civil issue received widespread support throughout the state. The ballot measure passed by a wide margin, with 58% of voters supporting the reform.
Supporters of the bill noted that locking people up has not helped decrease the problem of drug abuse or addictions. They called for the state to use proceeds from its marijuana tax to fund additional in-patient and out-patient drug treatment programs. Under the state’s new system, people who are repeatedly fined for possession of drugs will be referred to treatment.
Oregon collected $133 million in marijuana taxes last year, more than anticipated. However, those taxes also go to support other programs like schools, mental health programs, detox programs, and law enforcement programs.
Oregon’s marijuana tax revenue has increased 30% last year and keeps climbing. As additional states legalize recreational cannabis, the demand for Oregon grown products is increasing.
Additionally, state and local jurisdictions are expected to save money by reducing arrests. Charges for drug possession have historically used a lot of resources. The new law will mean time and money savings for police, public defenders, judges, jails, and prisons.
Although Oregon is the first state in the nation to decriminalize hard drugs, they are not the first jurisdiction to do so. Portugal, Switzerland, and the Netherlands all have decriminalized hard drugs.
Despite fears to the contrary, none of these countries has experienced an upsurge in violence or other issues. In fact, overdose deaths fell, and the number of people seeking treatment for addiction skyrocketed.
Manufacturing or distribution, i.e., selling, drugs is still a criminal offense and subject to prison.
As the law goes into effect, people on both sides of the issue will be watching closely to determine the impact the change in the law has on livability, crime rates, and overdose cases.
State and federal officials around the country are also watching what happens in Oregon. California, Washington, and Vermont are all said to be considering similar measures if Oregon’s efforts are successful.
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