Oregon’s Decriminalization of Drugs Could be a New Path to Ending the War on Drugs

The United States’ war on drugs has been raging on for the better part of 50 years — without much progress being made. Despite “Just Say No” campaigns of the Regan era, and “three strikes” laws of the 1990s, the damages of drug use in the U.S. haven’t gone away. Oregon took a new approach to shift this war on drugs in the 2020 election with significant drug reform policy. 

On election day, Oregon voters elected to decriminalize drugs — even hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, and crystal meth. Measure 110 passed with 58 percent of the vote, and public health officials hope it will offer a new path out of a war that has yielded little success.

While South Dakota, Mississippi, Montana, and Arizona all voted for major reform policy regarding marijuana, Oregon’s move truly is in stark contrast to the country’s long-held federal drug laws. Not only did Oregon decriminalize hard drugs, but measure 109 legalized the use of psychedelic plants for mental health facilities. But back to the big talking point of measure 110.

What does decriminalization of drugs mean for Oregon?

To clarify, Oregan voters didn’t legalize cocaine, they decriminalized the personal non-commercial use of such drugs. The passed ballot will also simultaneously fund drug treatment and recovery services in the state. According to NBC News, in 2019, Oregon ranked last in treatment access, despite ranking fourth in addiction rates. 

“Measure 110 is arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date,” Drug Policy Alliance executive director Kassandra Frederique said. “It shifts the focus where it belongs — on people and public health — and removes one of the most common justifications for law enforcement to harass, arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and deport people.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than a third of drug offenders serving a prison sentence had no or a minimal criminal history. Oregon’s move won’t eradicate mass incarceration, nor will it repair the damage done to minority communities through decades of aggressive policing. However, it does indicate that the public wants a new system in place focused more on the rehabilitation of drug addiction, rather than time behind bars. Offenders caught with drug amounts on them not high enough to be classified as distribution will be issued a $100 citation.

What does Oregon’s move mean for the rest of the country?

With the United States still struggling to get a grip on its opioid crisis, it’s easy to see how critics of measure 110 could fear a backfire. Yet, Oregon isn’t the first to try such a radical approach. Portugal decriminalized all drugs two decades ago and it’s working. The country has seen a drop in both overdoses, HIV infection rates, and drug-related crimes. 

According to Vox, Oregon’s passing of measure 110 will quadruple the $25 million the state put towards drug treatment a year prior. That means education and help for those who are suffering from addiction and want to get clean. Renee Johnson, a drug policy expert at Johns Hopkins University said that only 10 percent of people suffering from drug addiction access treatment, and she hopes this money will help to raise that percentage. “We have gaping holes in coverage,” Jonson said. 

While Portugal’s success hasn’t thus far been enough to tilt America’s drug war, Oregon’s policy — and particularly the success or failures that follow — just might. With even long-standing conservative states now reevaluating how the legal system views drugs, shifting the war on drugs in a new and effective direction may just happen. 

For Haven Wheelock who works with drug addicts in Portland, Oregon, November 3 brought a new glimmer of light into a very dark tunnel.  “I’m excited that when a client comes to me for help, I may now have more resources to help them,” she said. Referring to the passing of measure 110, Wheelock said “we get a chance to build and create a new system.”

Photos via Wikimedia Commons, Pickpic, Pixabay

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