Oregon Voters Back Bid to Decriminalize Hard Drugs

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — People caught with small amounts of hard drugs in Oregon will now have access to addiction assessments and treatment. If they take that route, the $100 fine they face will be waived — a step advocates say reclassifies addiction as a public health issue, not a criminal offense.

Voters in Oregon passed Measure 110 on Tuesday, which decriminalizes the possession of a user-amount of hard drugs. Drugs like cocaine, heroin, oxycodone and methamphetamine remain illegal, and manufacturing and selling them will still land you in jail. But simple possession of a small amount will be downgraded to a violation — the same category as a speeding ticket. Instead of potential jail time and probation, people caught with hard drugs will get a $100 fine, which is waived if they agree to a drug abuse assessment and potential treatment.

Oregon has among the highest rates of addiction to alcohol, cocaine, pain relievers and methamphetamine, and ranks third nationally among states where people can’t access the drug and alcohol abuse treatment they need according to a 2019 analysis by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

“We need to stop criminalizing people for what is fundamentally a health issue,” said Theshia Naidoo, managing director of legal affairs at Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based group that helped local advocates strategize and fund Measure 110.

Naidoo said mandating drug treatment as part of a court-ordered plan doesn’t work for one crucial reason: true recovery has to be voluntary. It also saddles people who are already struggling with addiction with a criminal record.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” Naidoo said. “We need to build the appropriate health structure so people can access care directly without the heavy-handed gatekeeper of the criminal justice system.”

The new law will use $57 million in state cannabis tax revenue to fund addiction recovery centers around the state, where people can access around-the-clock assessment and treatment for drug addiction disorder. Some of that money currently goes to schools, so legislators will likely need to replace that with money from the Oregon’s general fund.

But the measure is also likely to save the state money.

The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission found that, under the new law, convictions for drug possession would drop by 93%, to fewer than 400 per year. And that would add up to a big savings — over $24 million that Oregon wouldn’t have to spend in the next two-year budget alone.

Decriminalization is part of the idea of harm reduction: a strategy that came out of work in the 1980s to prevent the spread of HIV. Harm reduction prioritizes safety measures like needle exchanges, naloxone distribution and HIV and hepatitis-C testing, without conditioning those services on drug abstinence. 

“It’s not necessarily that the goal is that people stop using drugs — if that’s not realistic or what they want,” says Haven Wheelock, a harm reduction specialist at Outside In, a Portland clinic geared toward homeless youth. “Philosophically, it comes from the idea that everyone, including people who use drugs, deserves dignity. It’s really about autonomy and making sure people have tools to stay happy, healthy and not dead.”

Wheelock coordinates the needle exchange program at Outside In. She was one of the petitioners who brought Measure 110 to the ballot. Oregon is one of 19 states that allows citizen initiatives, where getting enough voter signatures on a petition can qualify that initiative for a general vote.

“For the folks I’m working with, the fear of arrest plays into their lives constantly,” Wheelock says. “That prevents them from seeking treatment and health care. It prevents them from seeking help when someone is overdosing. Because just the act of them trying to survive means they’re breaking the law.”

The measure passed despite opposition from the Oregon District Attorney’s Association, which called it “reckless” in a press release.

But that’s not the position held by the top state prosecutor in charge of the Oregon’s most populous county, where Portland is. Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt was a supporter of Measure 110 from day one.

“I’m a child of the 1980s,” Schmidt said. “I remember all the propaganda about, ‘This is your brain on drugs,’ with the egg in the pan. I think that was really seared into all our minds — that abstinence was the only way and we needed to shame people out of their addiction, deter them with criminal punishment. But this shows people’s minds are changing.”

Schmidt said criminalizing addiction had backfired, causing people to lie to their families and their doctors instead of seeking the help they need.

“My hope would be that we stop stigmatizing addiction as a moral failure and treat it like the health issue that it is,” Schmidt said.

Advocates hope Measure 110 will sound the first click of a domino effect — like the wave of legalization of medical and recreational use of marijuana. There too Oregon was ahead of the pack, with the 1973 decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of marijuana. 

“This measure is not going to fix everything overnight,” Wheelock said. “And it is a huge first step. And through the work of getting this passed, we have brought so many different groups together who care about addiction issues to tell the Legislature that we need change. So I’m super hopeful about what comes next.”

%d bloggers like this: