Drug decriminalization in Oregon
With all the hubbub around election results, you may have missed a crucial piece of legislation: Oregon just became the first state to decriminalize essentially all drugs. Our Clinical Director, Jeremy Arzt, LMFT, MA, says, “This is an opportunity to see if decriminalization is possible from an American cultural standpoint.”
We will be watching Oregon closely to see how decriminalization plays out for them.
Here is why you should too:
The current system is not working well
The criminalization of drug possession has not worked to improve the drug crisis.
Contrary to their aim, programs such as DARE, and campaigns that argue for “just say no” mentalities have done little to curb drug usage. Stringent laws have instead placed those suffering from substance use disorders in prisons and jails.
In 2018, over 1,600,000 Americans were arrested for drug law violations (Drug Policy Alliance, 2020). This number has increased drastically since the war on drugs began, so too have the number of people who meet clinical definitions for substance use disorder and the number of people who have accidentally overdosed.
In short, criminalization has drastically increased our prison population, while doing nothing substantive to decrease rates of substance use, drug-related health consequences, or overdoses.
Incarcerating for drug possession is expensive, ineffective, and in many cases dangerous.
Again, the war on drugs costs the United States over $47 billion annually. While 80% of those incarcerated in the United States meet the criteria for substance use disorders, there are very few resources to educate and aid in recovery while imprisoned.
The majority of those arrested on drug law violations are jailed for possession—not for sale or manufacture. (Initiative, 2020) Those responsible for the drug supply only make up a small portion of arrests.
Most frighteningly, the likelihood of an opioid overdose is 130 times greater within the two weeks immediately after release from incarceration. (Beletsky et al., 2015, p. 156) Those released from imprisonment have a much lower tolerance for their drug of choice and are at much greater risk upon release. This has combined with a lack of education and support during sentencing to produce some of the disastrous numbers we see around recovery. (Beletsky et al., 2015, p. 164)
Clearly, something needs to be done, and the reason that Oregon turned to decriminalization is…
Drug decriminalization shows a lot of promise
Decriminalization has been shown to work
In Portugal, the entire country decriminalized hard drugs with encouraging success. Their drug use rate is below the European average and significantly lower than in the United States. Overdose deaths are now 20% of what they were before decriminalization.
Additionally, negative health consequences went down significantly. This was especially true in the case of intravenously passed diseases like HIV/AIDS. New HIV diagnoses dropped to 20% of what they were before the passage of decriminalization. (Drug Policy Alliance, 2020)
Portugal implemented decriminalization nationwide in 2001 and has been held up as an example of the success of decriminalization for many years since.
Decriminalization will help more people find addiction treatment
The Oregon measure stipulates that those with a small amount of “hard” drugs will be issued a fine or can opt for assessment at a treatment center. These assessments and additional treatment/harm reduction costs statewide will be funded by cannabis tax revenue. Similar measures were taken in Portugal, resulting in an over 60% increase in addiction treatment.
One of the benefits of decriminalization in Portugal’s case was the de-stigmatization of addiction treatment and the encouragement of treatment. Manuel Cardos, Deputy Director of Intervention of Addictive Behaviors said “before decriminalization, addicts were afraid to seek treatment because they feared they would be denounced to the police and arrested, now they know they will be treated as patients with a problem and not stigmatized as criminals” (The Economist 2009, para. 7).
There is reason to believe that de-stigmatization will similarly help those struggling with addiction in Oregon.
Decriminalization is widely supported
Among the notable supporters of decriminalization are: United Nations, World Health Organization, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, American Public Health Association, Human Rights Watch, American Civil Liberties Union, Movement for Black Lives, NAACP, Latino Justice, National Latino Congreso, and Organization of American States.
Drug Policy Alliance cites Oregon’s decriminalization as the first successful passage of decriminalization and seeks to continue decriminalization nationwide. Not everyone takes quite as rosy a view of Measure 110, however.
There are concerns about Oregon’s decriminalization
Removal of harsh consequences
Some feel that a $100 fine or treatment consultation is not a steep enough consequence to help people recover from their addiction. One vocal opponent of Measure 110 is Dr. Paul Coelho of Salem Health Hospitals, who fears that there is no longer “disincentive of sufficient magnitude to coax the ambivalent or pre-contemplative person into a life of abstinence.”
He expressed further concern that Measure 110 may “result in a revolving door of drug abuse, treatment refusal, crime, homelessness, and ongoing costly health-related expenditures”. (Oregon Measure 110, Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative (2020))
Coelho here expresses the concern of many who fear that without significant legal consequences, there will be a growth in use and first-time users of substances.
Potentially insufficient resources and preparation
While Portugal prepared for decriminalization with a drug strategy outlined over 100+ pages, there are fears that measure 110 does not represent enough specific strategy. For example, Oregon has not incorporated the “commissions” that many consider integral to Portugal’s decriminalization success. These commissions are comprised of a lawyer, a psychiatrist, and a social worker. The commission has a wide range of sanctions available to rule on specific drug use offenses (Portugal, n.d.)
Oregon is also amongst the worst states for access to care and ranked amongst the most challenged states for substance use disorder and mental illness issues (Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, 2019). It is concerning that there is not an infrastructure built to support the increase in treatment that may well result from Measure 110.
Oregon’s decriminalization will influence other states
Many are very hopeful about Oregon’s decriminalization, and many others have expressed valid concerns and urged caution. As the first state to make such sweeping drug decriminalization, we will be keeping a close eye on Oregon in the coming months and years to watch how their changes develop.
We will not be the only ones. Other states will be watching and learning from Oregon’s decriminalization efforts. Should decriminalization of drugs be a success in Oregon, as many hope, we can expect to see other states begin to pass similar measures.
Beletsky, L., LaSalle, L., Newman, M. A., Pare, J. M., Tam, J. S., & Tochka, A. B. (2015). Fatal Re-Entry: Legal and Program-Matic opportunities to curb opioid overdose among individuals newly released from incarceration. Northeastern University Law Journal, 7(1), 155–215. https://ssrn.com/abstract=2628297
Drug Decriminalization. (n.d.). Drug Policy Alliance. https://www.drugpolicy.org/issues/drug-decriminalization
Drug War Statistics. (2020). Drug Policy Alliance. https://www.drugpolicy.org/issues/drug-war-statistics
Initiative, P. P. (2020). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020. Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html
Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. (2019, September). Analysis of Oregon’s Publicly Funded Substance Abuse Treatment System: Report and Findings for Senate Bill 1041. https://www.oregon.gov/cjc/CJC%20Document%20Library/SB1041Report.pdf
Oregon Measure 110, Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative (2020). (2020). Ballotpedia. https://ballotpedia.org/Oregon_Measure_110,_Drug_Decriminalization_and_Addiction_Treatment_Initiative_(2020)
Overdose Death Rates. (2020, October 19). National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
Portugal. (n.d.). Portuguese Drug Strategy. Https://Www.Emcdda.Europa.Eu/. https://www.emcdda.europa.eu/system/files/att_119431_EN_Portugal%20Drug%20strategy%201999.pdf
The Economist. (2009, August 27). Treating, not punishing. https://www.economist.com/europe/2009/08/27/treating-not-punishing