Oregon Decriminalizes Drugs—What This Means for the Future

Portland Oregon
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In an unprecedented action, Oregon residents voted to move away from criminalizing drug use. Oregon is the first state in the nation to pass a ballot measure that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, oxycodone, psilocybin mushrooms, and other hard drugs. The “go directly to jail” card has been tossed and the offender is given a choice between a small fine and treatment.

The move correctly recognizes the failures of the War on Drugs and the rampant criminalizing of drug addiction in this country as an unworkable solution. However, it is doubtful that this ballot measure will improve conditions in Oregon in the long run, if more emphasis is not placed on treatment.

Decriminalization is not an end-all solution for the drug abuse problem. Increased access to addiction treatment must follow drug decriminalization or drug use statistics and overall drug presence within communities will likely increase, and the strategy will backfire.

The recent ruling in Oregon can easily lead to more drug use, unless addiction treatment is a larger component of the new measure, through accessibility and incentive.

What's Happening in Oregon?

A homeless man holding a sign that says Addicted.
                              Photo by PeteWill/iStockPhoto.com

It is no wonder that Oregon residents want new solutions to drug addiction. The state is suffering from a significant drug crisis despite years of War on Drugs-era policy measures.

Here is a look at some statistics:

  • One in eleven Oregon residents is addicted to drugs (which lends itself to an overburdened criminal justice system).
  • Two Oregon residents die from drug overdoses every day (which shows a need for providing treatment over incarceration).
  • According to their own state government's research data, all forms of drug use, drug addiction, and drug-related deaths have increased in Oregon since the turn of the century.

Oregon's opioid crisis surged through the early-2000s, with several hundred Oregon residents dying from opioid overdoses each year since then. A portion of that death toll resulted from Oregon medical practitioners prescribing opiate drugs at a rate much higher than the national average.

  • In 2018, physicians wrote 57 prescriptions for every 100 residents, compared to a national average of just 51 prescriptions for every 100 residents. (Opiate addicts need treatment, not more prescriptions.)

The stats clearly show that criminalization and incarceration of addicts for committing no “crime” other than being an addict did not reduce addiction statistics and the motivation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs is understandable. Oregonians decided enough was enough and moved to take a different route in other solutions for the problem.

Two dozen district attorneys across Oregon opposed the decriminalization efforts, but two DAs supported it, as did 59% of Oregon voters.

Thanks to the ballot measure, about 3,700 Oregon residents will avoid felony and misdemeanor charges each year. Keeping such addicts out of the criminal justice system will make future positive opportunities more attainable for them. However, simply avoiding the criminal justice system is unlikely to solve the underlying addiction problem. Until that is solved there is no real progress being made.

The History and Explanation of Decriminalization of Drugs

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Though Oregon's recent ballot measure is unprecedented in the United States, it is not without precedent in the world. In many ways, Oregon is following the models of Portugal, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, to name a few, all of which have moved towards the decriminalization of drugs.

Oregon has been the pioneer of the states when it comes to decriminalization of drugs. It was the first state to decriminalize cannabis back in the 1980s. Eleven states and Washington DC have since joined Oregon in that endeavor, but no state decriminalized hard drug possession until Oregon did on November 3rd.

It is important to understand that Oregon did not legalize hard drugs—it decriminalized hard drug possession. If a drug user is found with a small amount of drugs on their person, the offender has the option to pay a $100 fine or attend addiction treatment. As for access to such treatment, beginning in 2021, Oregon plans to use the tax revenue from legalized marijuana sales to fund state-wide addiction treatment centers.

Because there is still a mandatory consequence of being found with drugs (mandatory fine or mandatory treatment), it cannot be said that Oregon “legalized” drugs, as legalization would indicate consequence-free drug use. However, addicts will no longer be arrested and incarcerated for using drugs in Oregon, which is a move in the right direction.

Though decriminalization with a path to treatment is a step in the right direction, the passage of Measure 110 could be taken as a green light to normalize drug use. This measure went far beyond simply prioritizing treatment—for all intents and purposes, it legalized the recreational use of heroin, meth, LSH, opiates, and a laundry list of other harmful drugs.

It does reduce fear of incarceration or legal repercussions, but decriminalization falls short when it comes to encouraging addicts to reach out and seek help.

A Fine on Drug Possession is Not the Whole Answer

Drug search
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Now the focus must turn to assisting drug abusers in Oregon receive help via addiction treatment centers. Giving addicts an option to pay a $100 fine or go to treatment is not the correct approach. It offers addicts an easy way to escape the immense responsibility of confronting their addiction via treatment. A $100 fine and the ability to go back to using drugs will end up being far more tempting to many addicts than simply getting to work and tackling their addiction through rehab.

Addiction Treatment Must be the Focus Going Forward

But to again emphasize the crucial points that will make or break the success of the ballot measure in Oregon, we need to ask the hard questions:

Will addiction treatment be made available to Oregon's drug addicts? And how successful will the new ballot measure be if addicts can pay a fine to avoid going to rehab and then get right back to using drugs?

Without answering these questions, the decriminalization efforts amount to nothing more than the legalization of drugs.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS,



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.