Oregonians have made their state the first in the United States to decriminalize use of all drugs, including cocaine and heroin, after voting to approve Measure 110, according to the New York Times and the Associated Press.
The approval of the measure, one of several drug-related initiatives on the ballot November 3, doesn’t mean that the state has legalized the drugs.
Instead, Oregon will remove criminal penalties — including prison time — for possessing small amounts of currently illegal drugs, and will give those caught with drugs the option of either paying a $100 fine or getting a “completed health assessment” at an addiction recovery center. The sale of drugs will still be illegal, so don’t expect stores or pharmacies selling cocaine or heroin to pop up (at least legally).
The state will also now redirect existing marijuana sales tax revenues and savings from the measure — for example, savings from reduced prison time — toward setting up a more expansive drug addiction treatment and recovery program.
Supporters of decriminalization argue that drug misuse and addiction are public health issues, not problems for the criminal justice system. They claim that criminal prohibition leads to hundreds of thousands of unneeded, racially disparate arrests each year in the US. And that this is a costly endeavor, straining police and contributing to mass incarceration, that does little to actually help people struggling with drug use.
It would be better, these advocates say, to put all that money toward education, treatment, and harm reduction services. And to the extent that drug use does contribute to crime and violence, there are other laws in place, including for drug trafficking, that can cover those issues without making possession itself a criminal offense.
Opponents argue that decriminalization removes a powerful deterrent to trying and using drugs, potentially fueling more drug use and addiction. They claim criminal penalties attached to drug possession can also be leveraged — through, say, drug courts — to push people into addiction treatment they otherwise wouldn’t accept. And they argue that to the extent there are real racial disparities in such arrests, that’s a problem with bias in law enforcement and systemic racism across American society in general, not necessarily a result of drug prohibition itself.
Some critics also questioned if the ballot initiative’s reallocation strategy will really direct sufficient funding to addiction treatment. The campaign in support of the measure claimed, citing state analyses, that it would at least quadruple state funding to recovery services.
Oregonians previously legalized marijuana. Although some states have ended felony charges for use of all illegal drugs, Oregon is the first in the US to take the more aggressive step to decriminalize them.
But Oregon isn’t the first place in the world to decriminalize drugs. Portugal did it in 2001, earning a lot of continued media coverage (including at Vox). The effects seemed, on net, positive: Coupled with boosts to drug addiction treatment and harm reduction services, drug decriminalization seemed to lead to more drug use overall but less problematic use.
Citing Portugal’s model, critics of the war on drugs have long clamored to bring the model to the US. With Oregon’s vote, they now have a launching pad — one to not just prove that the idea can work in the US, but also to maybe inspire other states to take more aggressive steps toward ending their drug wars.
For more on Oregon’s Measure 110, read Vox’s explainer.