Oregon Voters Pass Measure 110 to Decriminalize Hard Drugs

Pills and drugs Photo Source: Shutterstock Image

Oregon has become the first U.S. state to abolish criminal penalties for possession and use of all drugs, including cocaine, LSD, and heroin. The ballot initiative, known as Measure 110 or the “Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act,” also redirects state funding to expanded healthcare access and addiction services without raising taxes.

The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission estimates the bill will lead to a reduction of 3,700 convictions in the state each year. According to the legislation, “People suffering from addiction are more effectively treated with health care services than with criminal punishment.”

The campaign for the ballot measure was led by Drug Policy Action, an offset of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which campaigns to change perspective and policy in the country’s “war on drugs.” The group has backed other drug policy reforms in the state and is known for its success with Measure 91, the 2014 ballot measure that legalized marijuana consumption and cultivation in Oregon.

“Today’s victory is a landmark declaration that the time has come to stop criminalizing people for drug use,” said DPA Executive Director Kassandra Frederique in a statement. “Measure 110 is arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date. 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.”

When the measure goes into full effect on February 1, 2021, minor possession of drugs will no longer be punished as a misdemeanor, as previously held in Oregon. Instead, penalties will include a fine of $100 or a mandatory visit to a recovery service—similar to the restitution warranted by a traffic violation. The policy does not change the criminal code for other drug-related offenses, and drug possession that exceeds the measure’s codified limits of “minor” will still elicit a misdemeanor charge.

The measure also includes expansions to the array of addiction services under the Oregon Health Authority (OHA). These changes include developing access to free treatments, screenings, and recovery housing. As for funding this statewide healthcare endeavor, there will not be any tax raises involved. Rather, the OHA’s expansions are to be subsidized by a very specific pool of tax dollars: marijuana-generated tax revenue.

Oregon has a history of pioneering drug reform, being the first state to decriminalize marijuana and allow its medicinal use. And, after voters legalized marijuana with Measure 91, the state government set up regulatory standards for taxing and licensing marijuana sales—those standards now procure tens of millions of dollars in annual taxes for the state.

Measure 110 directs annual tax revenue from the industry in excess of $45 million to fund the OHA’s expansion of addiction and recovery services. More than $100 million is expected to funnel into the program during the first year alone. Additional funds will come from the savings generated by the decriminalizing itself. Lawbreaking entails a costly set of government procedures, from arrest to prosecution, allowing the state to anticipate substantial savings.

Opponents to the measure fear it could encourage increased drug use—especially for younger potential users—and lead to more drug-related fatalities. However, the case has been made for the public health dangers of skewing perception and treatment regarding drug misuse. In recent years, the escalating opioid crisis, in particular, has catalyzed the fight to counter drug misuse with understanding and treatment, rather than incarceration.

“It’s clear that the current approach of arresting and jailing people for their drug addiction has failed,” said Anthony Johnson, a proponent for the policy reforms. “People realized Measure 110 was ultimately about people, not drugs.”

In other countries, similar approaches have been implemented with great success. Portugal decriminalized minor possession of hard drugs 20 years ago with no overtly negative consequence—in fact, drug deaths decreased and services for addiction treatment even saw increased use for a few years. Switzerland and the Netherlands also have successful versions of such policies in place.

The measure is the first of such magnitude in the U.S., but parts of the country already have varying degrees of drug decriminalization as a result of following Oregon’s lead with marijuana-related policy. The policy’s advocates hope the landmark legislation sets an example that the rest of the nation will want to follow.

“As we saw with the domino effect of marijuana legalization, we expect this victory to inspire other states to enact their own drug decriminalization policies that prioritize health over punishment,” Frederique said.

The record of success (both social and economic) in states that have embraced drug policy reform keeps DPA and its supporters optimistic. If Oregon’s latest ambition to forge drug policy reform succeeds, the entire public perception of drug misuse faces upheaval in the years to come.

Hillary Back
Hillary Back
Hillary is a graduate of Northwestern University and a freelance writer who analyzes policy and culture in the digital age.
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