The pros and cons of Oregon’s decriminalization of hard drugs

The pros and cons of Oregon’s decriminalization of hard drugs
Source: Rafael Marchante, Reuters
Those in Oregon who pushed for this legislation believe that treating addiction as a medical condition, rather than punishing it as a crime, is the only way to cure it.

While most in the United States were waiting to find out the results of the presidential race, Oregon made history by becoming the first state to legalize hard drugs like LSD, heroin, oxycodone, methamphetamine, among others.

Measure 110, also referred to as the Drug Decriminalization and Treatment Initiative, changes noncommercial possession of Schedule I-IV controlled substances into a Class E violation, down from a Class A misdemeanor. Before this election, the penalty for having an illegal substance was up to one year in prison and a US$6,250 fine. With Measure 110, however, the penalty is drastically reduced.

If you are caught with these substances, the penalty will either be a US$100 fine, or the accused could attend “addiction recovery centers.” These centers will be funded by regulated and legal marijuana businesses, an industry that generates millions of dollars in taxes for the state. The law does not change the penalty for those who illegally manufacture or distribute illegal drugs.

Inspiration for decriminalization

With so many different crises happening in the US, it is easy to forget that the country is struggling with addiction issues. In 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” increasing federal drug agencies and introducing mandatory sentencing for drug possession and “no-knock” warrants. Almost 50 years later, the scars left by the war on drugs are still evident in the US.

Despite the harsh sentences and stronger policing, addiction rates and drug abuse are still rampant throughout the US. The Oregon Nurses Association reports that one in 11 Oregonians struggle with addiction problems and an average of two Oregonians a day die from drug overdoses.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has classified addiction as a mental illness. Those in Oregon who pushed for this legislation believe that treating addiction as a medical condition, rather than punishing it as a crime, is the only way to cure it.

Studies have shown that incarceration due to drug use does not lower drug abuse. In a letter to President Donald Trump and then-Governor Chris Christie, Adam Gelb, director of The Public Safety Performance Project for The Pew Charitable Trusts, describes the negatives of putting those suffering from addiction in jail.

“There is no statistically significant relationship between state drug offender imprisonment rates and three measures of state drug problems: rates of illicit drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests,” Gelb wrote.

Prisons have also become alarmingly expensive and dangerous. Overcrowding, prisoner to guard ratio, and limited educational opportunities have made prisons more expensive for taxpayers and more dangerous for the prisoners held there.

Portuguese results show mostly positives

Portugal is often used as a blueprint for decriminalization, as the country passed similar legislation to that recently passed in Oregon. The major difference is that people caught in possession of illicit drugs in Portugal are penalized by panels made up of social workers, medical professionals and drug experts.

The panels then decide to refer people to rehabilitation programs, issue a fine, or impose community service. Portuguese officials wanted to change the way the government looked at addiction by giving help to those who suffer from the problem of addiction rather than punishing them.

Professor Hannah Laqueur of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of California released a study in 2008 analyzing the almost-immediate results of the change in the law. The study found that, as of 2008, three-quarters of those with opioid disorders received medication-assisted treatment.

“Most accounts of the Portugal experiment have focused on decriminalization, but decriminalization was part of a broader effort intended to encourage treatment,” Laqueur explained.

Opioid overdoses have since fallen in Portugal. Prison overcrowding and addiction rates have also fallen throughout the country. New cases of diseases related to drug injection (H.I.V., hepatitis C) have also dramatically fallen. This is significant because, as studies in America have shown, investment in the prevention of these diseases saves large amounts of money.

But it has not been all good news in Portugal. One study found that drug experimentation rose after decriminalization. However, most experimentation did not lead to regular use.

More concerning was a 41% increase in the murder rate in the five years following decriminalization along with a rise in drug trafficking.

Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, attributes this to misinterpretation of the law by drug traffickers. He explains that traffickers believed “the Portuguese law as a sign the country was a safe place to expand their business, leading to clashes among them and between them and the police.”

Response to decriminalization in Oregon

Despite the measure passing, proving that many in the state support decriminalization, concerns remain about the specifics of the bill.

Mike Marshall, the executive of Oregon Recovers, is concerned that the measure does not address the issue of limited access to treatment.

“Their goal is to move people out of the criminal justice system into the health care system,” Marshall states. “But the health care system isn’t ready to receive them.” Though an advocate for addiction recovery efforts and decriminalization, Marshall worries that the bill will undermine what the community, including programs like Oregon Recovers, already does.

However, the Vote Yes on 110 Campaign has reported support and endorsements from dozens of Oregon treatment centers and organizations.

Anthony Johnson, the co-chief petitioner of Measure 110, believes there will be an excess of US$110 million from marijuana tax revenue and law enforcement savings.

“Measure 110 will provide more treatment avenues and allow people to get treatment when they want it and not be forced upon it which can be traumatic,” Johnson explained.

Lane County District Attorney Patty Perlow expressed her concern over various aspects of the bill. Perlow believes that many who suffer from addiction problems will fall through the cracks due to a lack of follow-through after an assessment from the board. Perlow is also worried that the measure will see an influx of illegal cartel operations.

“My best guess is Oregon is going to be a target-rich environment for drug dealers," Perlow said, mirroring the issues Portugal had when they decriminalized similar drugs.

The ballot does not take effect until February of 2021, so the impact of the measure will not be immediately clear. Additionally, the language in the bill sets October 2021 as the date the state expects to have addiction centers open.

Have a tip or story? Get in touch with our reporters at