In what justice advocates celebrated as a major shift away from the devastating and failed policies of the nation's so-called "war on drugs," Oregon on Monday officially became the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all drugs with a new policy that also aims to boost access various related services.
"For the first time in at least half a century, one place in the United States—Oregon—will show us that we can give people help without punishing them."
—Kassandra Frederique, Drug Policy Alliance
Oregon voters passed Measure 110, also called the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, by a 17% margin in November. The ballot initiative was spearheaded by Drug Policy Action—the advocacy arm of Drug Policy Alliance—in partnership with Oregon groups and supported by over 100 local, state, and national organizations.
"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 over criminalization," said Drug Policy Alliance executive director Kassandra Frederique in a statement Monday. "For the first time in at least half a century, one place in the United States—Oregon—will show us that we can give people help without punishing them."
"This law is meant to protect people against persecution, harassment, and criminalization at the hands of the state for using drugs and instead [give] access to the supports they need," Frederique explained. "Over the last year, we have been painfully reminded of the harms that come from drug war policing and the absence of necessary health services and other support systems in our communities. Today, Oregon shows us a better, more just world is possible."
As VICE senior editor Manisha Krishnan tweeted, it is a "historic day for drug reform," noting that the measure is expected to reduce racial disparities in drug arrests.
historic day for drug reform. personal possession of all drugs is now decriminalized in Oregon, a measure that's expected to reduce the racial disparity in low-level drug arrests by 95 percent: https://t.co/xwC2vb8Vc5
— (@ManishaKrishnan) February 1, 2021
Anyone found in possession of one to three grams of heroin, one to four grams of MDMA, two to eight grams of methamphetamine, or two to eight grams of cocaine "will be charged with simple possession, a misdemeanor offense, rather than a felony," Krishnan reported. The new lower-level possession limits are:
- Less than one gram of heroin;
- Less than one gram, or less than five pills, of MDMA;
- Less than two grams of methamphetamine;
- Less than 40 units of LSD;
- Less than 12 grams of psilocybin;
- Less than 40 units of methadone;
- Less than 40 pills of oxycodone; and
- Less than two grams of cocaine.
Rather than a misdemeanor, drug possession as detailed above will lead to a citation that includes a phone number for recovery help. The citation will be dropped if they agree to the health assessment.
"The options will be to pay a $100 fine or call a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week phone line and talk to a peer-support specialist and get a social services needs screening done," Tera Hurst of the Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance told KPTV.
"Services for treatment options will be funded through a portion of marijuana tax revenue and the money saved from fewer arrests," according to KPTV. "On Monday, the law's Oversight and Accountability Council will form. It will determine rules for the new law, and also where grants and money are distributed."
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State projections (pdf) cited by Drug Policy Alliance show the marijuana tax revenue could fund over $100 million in services the first year and up to $129 million by 2027. The advocacy group also highlighted an Oregon Criminal Justice Commission report (pdf) from August that found racial disparities in drug arrests could drop by nearly 95% as a result of the new policy.
Supporters of Oregon's shift to decriminalization and a healthcare-based approach to drug use and possession hope that the measure can serve as a model for the rest of the United States.
Some are hopeful Oregon's move to decriminalize drugs will be the first in a wave of progressive measures that undo years of damage caused by drug criminalization. https://t.co/85WcoGSbPf
— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) February 1, 2021
"I hope that we all become more enlightened across this country that substance abuse is not something that necessitates incarceration, but speaks to other social ills—lack of healthcare, lack of treatment, things of that nature," Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) told USA Today. "If you're white and wealthy, you get an opportunity to get a break, go home to your family, and go into some kind of healthcare environment."
In June 2018, Watson Coleman introduced a resolution that "expresses the sense of Congress that the war on drugs failed, and calls out the disparate treatment of individuals criminalized for drug use—frequently people of color who used crack and cocaine—to ensure that all future drug policy is based on evidence-based healthcare solutions."
Her resolution was endorsed by the Drug Policy Alliance as well as Amnesty International, the Justice Policy Institute, Justice Strategies, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, and the Sentencing Project.
Although the congresswoman, who is Black, did not say whether she plans to re-introduce the resolution now that Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House, she emphasized to USA Today that the war on drugs "was used as a weapon, as a tool to disrupt our communities," adding that "it wasn't a war on drugs, it was a war on poor brown and Black men and women, and it did terrible things to families for generations."
Oregon's progress on drug policy reform comes as advocates are pushing President Joe Biden to "abandon criminalization as a means to address substance use, and instead ensure universal access to equitable evidence-based solutions rooted in racial and economic justice and compassion," as over 200 groups wrote in a letter just before he took office last month.
Detailing a series of policy proposals, the coalition wrote to Biden that "it is our strong hope and belief that ending the drug war that has inflicted incredible harm in communities across this nation, and centering evidence-based solutions to address the overdose crisis, could be a great catalyst for a national transformation."