needle and powder
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
November 12, 2020 ·  4 min read

Oregon becomes first state to decriminalize all hard drugs like heroin and cocaine

Oregon was the first state to decriminalize marijuana possession in 1973. In 2020, drug decriminalization – all illicit drugs, was on the ballot. Lawmakers made the decision early in the morning on Wednesday, November 4, 2020, that the bill had successfully passed. The Oregon Drug Decriminalization effort is meant to move the state’s drug policy from a punitive, criminal approach to a humane, cost-effective, health care approach.

Oregon Drug Decriminalization

Until now, Oregon’s strategy for dealing with drugs was the same as other states- arrest them and give them prison time. Locking drug users up and giving them the burden of a criminal record, however, was not working.

The Oregon Nurses Association, the Oregon Chapter of the American College of Physicians and the Oregon Academy of Family Physicians all cited the state’s drug problem as proof. One in eleven people in the state are addicted to drugs, they said. Nearly two people die every day from overdoses.

“We urgently need a change to save families and save lives,” they wrote [1].

This new Oregon drug decriminalization law is known as “Measure 110” will apply to citizens who are found with personal-use amounts of heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, oxycodone, and other hard drugs. Instead of being arrested and given jail time, these people will have two options:

  1. They pay a one hundred dollar fine.
  2. They attend one of the new “addiction recovery centers” that will be available across the state. These centers will be funded by the tax revenue from Oregon’s marijuana industry.

The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission estimates that under the new law, about 3700 fewer citizens will receive felony or misdemeanor convictions for the possession of drugs.

“This is such a big step in moving to a health-based approach instead of criminal punishment, and we’re devoting significant new resources to help Oregonians who need it,” said Janie Gullickson, co-chief petitioner of Measure 110 [1].

Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, calls the new law “incredible”.

“This is like taking a sledgehammer to the cornerstone of the drug war,” she says [2].

What Are the Specifics of the Oregon Drug Decriminalization Law?

The new measure applies only to those who are in the possession of personal-use amounts of controlled substances. More specifically, that means:

  • One gram or less of heroine
  • Less than one gram or five pills of MDMA
  • Less than forty user units of LSD
  • Two grams or less of methamphetamine
  • Less than twelve grams of psilocybin
  • Two grams or less of cocaine
  • Less than forty user units of methadone
  • Less than forty pills, tablets, or capsules of oxycodone

Possession of amounts greater than this, or other activities such as manufacturing or selling drugs, or driving under the influence, are still criminal offenses [3].

The measure also does not apply retroactively to past convictions, although legislative officials may attempt to remove some of those offenses from people’s criminal records [1].

Not Everyone is Happy

As of November 10, nearly 59 percent of the population of Oregon had voted “yes” for Measure 110 [3]. Not everyone was supportive of the new law, including several district attorneys.

Two dozen district attorneys called the legislation reckless. They believe that it will lead to an increase in the acceptability of dangerous drugs.

Despite this, other states are also relaxing some of their drug policies. Several states including Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota have all added themselves to the list of states where marijuana is legal as of November 3 [1].

Read: Colorado City Used $7.3 Million From Marijuana Tax Revenue to Provide for the Homeless

This Isn’t A New Strategy

This approach to drug control is new in the United States, but other countries have been doing this for years. These countries include Portugal, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, all of whom decriminalized hard drugs without a negative fallout.

In fact, Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001, and only experienced beneficial outcomes. Instead of causing an increase in drug use, the country saw a dramatic reduction in its related pathologies. This included the instance of sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug overdose. A 2009 Cato Institute study assessing the efficacy of Portugal’s drug policies stated:

“There is a consensus that decriminalization, by destigmatizing drug use, will bring a higher proportion of users into treatment, thereby increasing the need for treatment.” [4]

In other words, decriminalization has not been a concession to the inevitability of drug use. Instead, it has been the most effective government policy for reducing addiction and the harms that come with it. The country’s National Plan Against Drugs and Drug Addictions for 2005 to 2012 centers around strategies for prevention, demand reduction, and harm-reduction, as well as maximizing treatment resources and availability for those who seek it [4].

According to the 2015 European Drug Report, the death rate due to drug overdose in Portugal is five times lower than the EU average [5]. 

In addition, Portugese officials say that from 2001 to 2008, the number of people receiving treatment for drug addiction rose by twenty percent, then stabilized [1].

Measure 110: A Safer Future?

Officials and supporters are optimistic that the new Oregon drug decriminalization legislation will help the state with their “war on drugs”.

“Today’s victory is a landmark declaration that the time has come to stop criminalizing people for drug use,” Frederique. “Measure 110 is arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date.” [1]

The new law will not take effect until thirty days after the presidential election on November 3. The punishment changes won’t be in place until February first. Additionally, addiction recovery centers must be available by October 1 [1].