Possessing small amounts of LSD, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, methadone, oxycodone and MDMA (ecstasy) is no longer a crime in Oregon, due to a ballot measure approved in the 2020 fall election that went into effect Monday, Feb. 1. Instead of being arrested, individuals found in possession of the drugs would face either a $100 fine or a health assessment that may lead to addiction counseling.
Oregon Measure 110 was approved by 59% of the state’s population (1,333,268 voters) and made possession of small amounts of virtually all drugs in the state a non-jailable crime. (Marijuana has been legal in Oregon since 2015.)
“Today, the first domino of our cruel and inhumane war on drugs has fallen, setting off what we expect to be a cascade of other efforts centering health overcriminalization,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City–based non-profit organization which spearheaded the ballot initiative.
According to reporter Andrew Selsky from the Associated Press, “Ballot Measure 110’s backers said treatment needs to be the priority and that criminalizing drug possession was not working.”
Besides filling jails with otherwise productive, nonviolent criminals, drug reform advocates say that existing drug arrests and convictions disproportionately impact Black and brown individuals with stiffer sentences and consequences that ultimately impact housing and career choices, affecting some individuals for life.
Matt Sutton, a spokesman for the Drug Policy Alliance explained the new law as being similar to traffic tickets. “Instead of facing arrest, those found by law enforcement with personal-use amounts of drugs would face a civil citation — not a criminal citation.”
Selsky reported that “under the new system, addiction recovery centers will be tasked with triaging the acute needs of people who use drugs and assessing and addressing any on-going needs through intensive case management and linkage to care and services.”
These addiction recovery centers — along with housing and job placement assistance — would be funded by tax revenue from Oregon’s legalized marijuana industry which is already awash with funds.
“In the 2020 fiscal year, marijuana tax revenues peaked at $133 million, a 30% increase over the previous year, and a 545% increase over 2016, when pot taxes began being collected from legal, registered recreational marijuana enterprises around the state,” Selsky wrote. “The fund would also be spent on housing and job assistance to provide long-term stability for people struggling with addiction.”
Hakique Virani, a doctor and addictions specialist at the University of Alberta in Canada, sees the new Oregon law as a win, especially for those looking to reform existing drug policies. In an interview with Kat Eschner from Popular Science, he said that drug laws “were never set out to help people stop using substances. What they were set out to do was exclude people with certain characteristics.” Those who are marginalized because of their race, class, sexuality or other factors bear the overwhelming burden of criminal drug policy, he says, “in spite of the fact that substance use rates are equivalent across demographics, including racial demographics.”
Once in place, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission has estimated that yearly convictions for possession of a controlled substance would decrease by 3,679, or 90.7%.
While this approach may sound revolutionary, Selsky reported that countries such as Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland have already enacted similar measures, with no significant surge in drug use.
D.I. Fast Facts
More than $47 billion
Amount the U.S. currently spends on “fighting” drugs.
Number of people arrested for possession of drugs in the U.S. in 2018, the last year complete records are available for.
Rate in which Black men and women are likely to be incarcerated in comparison to white people.
— The Sentencing Project
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