Oregon’s Big Drug Decriminalization Gamble

Oregon bridge

In 2020, Oregon voters approved Measure 110, which decriminalized small quantities of drugs calculated as the amount a person might have for personal use. This law went into effect on February 1, 2021.

This law didn’t mean that drug possession was legal, but rather that the individual would not be arrested. Instead, they would receive a citation requiring a $100 fine. That person could avoid the fine if they called a hotline for a health assessment screening and, if they choose, receive a referral to a drug treatment service.

How much of each substance could be possessed? Anything under these amounts:

  • Two grams of methamphetamine
  • Two grams of cocaine
  • Forty doses of LSD
  • Forty doses of oxycodone or methadone
  • One gram of heroin
  • One gram or five pills of MDMA (ecstasy)
  • Twelve grams of psilocybin

How many individual doses would these quantities of methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin make? The answer depends on how diluted the product is and how long a person has been using it. It also depends on how accustomed to each type of drug the user has become. But here is a general guideline:

  • With a very pure methamphetamine product, for example, a new user might use a tenth of a gram, and a long-term user might use a gram.
  • With a less pure methamphetamine product, a new user might use a half gram at a time, a long-term user could use 3 or more grams.
  • Heroin is often sold in one-tenth of a gram packets.
  • A person new to cocaine is likely to use a tenth of a gram at a time.

Was it the right time to decriminalize drugs in Oregon, or was this a big gamble on the State’s part? While it will take time to have a definitive answer to this question, some data is available now to get an early answer.

Has This Change of Law Been Helpful or Harmful?

Addict is calling for help

That’s not an easy question to answer at this point. What is most important is to ensure that a law of this type is getting help to those who need it. On this point, Rachel Dawson of the Blue Mountain Eagle reported on 20 December 2021: “As predicted, fewer drug arrests were made in 2021… As of November, there have been 68 total health assessment screenings. However, 49 callers were not interested in resources and merely underwent the assessment to escape the fine, while only 11 people were connected to some kind of addiction or recovery service.”

What is easier to assess at this early date is the damage that can be created even with these personal-use quantities of drugs.

  • For some people, methamphetamine and heroin are rapidly addictive. While some people can use these drugs a few times and then stop, for others, a single exposure to methamphetamine or heroin is all it takes to hook them.
  • One gram of heroin could constitute as many as ten separate uses of that drug. It would not be surprising that a person might use heroin ten times and then find they lose the ability to make the choice not to use again.
  • Forty doses of oxycodone or methadone could be enough to kill a classroom full of high school students, depending on the amount of opioid drug in each pill.

The way the system in Oregon is working right now, the state has effectively removed any legal penalty from using drugs. There’s no argument that many justice systems need improvement. When we make a fast and dramatic change like this, however, it could eliminate one problem while creating another.

Was Oregon Prepared for This Change?

Measure 110 was promoted as being intended to get drug users referred to rehab rather than arresting them. That’s a good intention if more Oregonians do get help to stop using drugs. However, contrast Oregon’s situation with Portugal’s. After all, Portugal’s system of referring drug users to treatment instead of arresting them was a model for Oregon when they planned Measure 110.

Portugal police officers

In 2001, Portugal took a similar step, decriminalizing drugs possessed for a person’s own use. If individuals are found to have drugs, they are called before one of the Commissions for Dissuasions of Drug Addiction. That Commission decides what action should be taken for a person appearing the first time. They might receive either a warning or a fine. If that person chooses to enter drug treatment, their fine will be suspended. Treatment is paid for by the government of Portugal.

If the person is called before the Commission a second time or it is determined that they are addicted, the Commission has the power to impose penalties on that person. They might be prevented from receiving public benefits or a professional license unless they agree to undergo drug treatment. The Commission can also demand reports from the person that they are not using drugs at a later date.

João Goulão, Portugal’s director-general of drug policy commented on a vital point about their system: “Decriminalization is not a silver bullet. If you decriminalize and do nothing else, things will get worse.”

In Portugal, with penalties in place to strongly encourage a person to accept help and state-provided rehabilitation for those in need, Portugal has more of the essential components in place that would be needed to reduce the volume of drug use.

Of course, even in Portugal, if a person possesses more than these minimal amounts of drugs, they will go to jail.

Oregon’s Current Situation, According to Oregonians

About Oregon’s current system, Tony Vezina weighed in. He is the director of Dimension Recovery Center and chair of the Oregon Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission. While he is tasked with improving treatment services in the state, he says this about the aftermath of Measure 110: “We haven’t built anything new, so now we need to rapidly design a new system strategically. But Oregon doesnt operate strategically around this issue. So we dont have a new intervention system. We dont have a recovery-oriented system of care. Weve just decriminalized.”

The Editorial Board of the Oregonian recently published a long editorial on issues to be tackled in 2022. About Measure 110, they said, “Lax ticketing and the large number of people simply ignoring such citations rather than seeking help are worrisome signs of the measure’s effectiveness.”

“Criminalizing a health condition is never the way to go. So that piece of [Oregon’s law] was beautifully constructed. But it also created a problem, because there are some people—the stick of jail allowed them to get into recovery. And now we don’t have that anymore.”

Reginald Richardson is executive director of the Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission. He observed, “Criminalizing a health condition is never the way to go. So that piece of [Oregon’s law] was beautifully constructed. But it also created a problem, because there are some people—the stick of jail allowed them to get into recovery. And now we don’t have that anymore.”

What Message Is Being Sent?

Helping an addict

Sending a person to rehab instead of jail can help many people get their lives together and avoid a jail sentence. But if there are, in effect, no penalties for drug possession and a poor system to get people help, the message to those who are perhaps more vulnerable might be that drug use is permitted.

But each of these drugs can and does cause serious adverse effects that vary with the type of drug. As we have already mentioned, drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine and even opioid painkillers can be addictive on first encounter for some people. Nearly all of them can be fatal if too much is consumed.

Even cocaine causes death, often from heart-related causes. Some people have also lost their lives after taking MDMA. A 2021 study gathered information on 1,400 MDMA-related deaths in Europe, Australia and Western Asia. While the majority of these deaths involved the use of multiple drugs, about one in five deaths related only to the use of MDMA.

It will no doubt take time for Oregon officials to learn what adjustments must be made to make this system work well for all Oregonians. But other states might not be that patient. Oregon State Senator John Braun commented, “I suspect voters in other states will be considering this before we have hard evidence on it.”

It may have been a dangerous move to implement such a law without making sure that there were services in place to catch at least the majority of those in danger of harming themselves with drugs and channeling them into rehabilitation services. Without this safety net, Oregon may find itself losing more citizens to unrestrained drug abuse.

Already, similar bills have been introduced in Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Vermont, Virginia and Washington state. It might be wise to give Oregon officials time to compile results and adjust their system before launching decriminalization laws in other areas. Otherwise, a gamble on drug decriminalization might be gambling with our citizens’ lives.



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Reviewed and edited by Claire Pinelli; ICAADC, ICCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC

AUTHOR

Karen

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.