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What happens when a state stops punishing drug users

Oregon decriminalized hard drugs last year, but so far the state’s alternative enforcement measures are showing disappointing results

Volunteers deliver boxes of signed petitions in favor of Oregon’s drug decriminalization measure to the Secretary of State’s office in Salem, Ore., in June 2020. Associated Press/Yes on Measure 110 Campaign, file

What happens when a state stops punishing drug users

Last year, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize possession of hard drugs. The goal was to change a punitive system into a recovery model that treats addiction as a health issue instead of a crime. But so far, the new system is under-resourced and underused, leaving authorities to guess where the drug users are and how bad their addictions have become.

With big funding from national organizations backing the campaign for Measure 110, it passed with 58 percent of the vote in the November 2020 election. It reduced the penalty for possessing small amounts of controlled substances, including methamphetamine and fentanyl. Instead of jail time or a heavy fine, a person caught with those drugs now receives a ticket and a $100 fine. But the person can avoid the fine by calling a hotline to get a health evaluation. The measure directed the state to send tax revenue from legal marijuana sales to “recovery centers” where people could receive evaluations and referrals. One goal was to reduce the racial disparity: Oregon’s population is overwhelmingly white, but black residents were overrepresented in drug arrests and convictions.

Since the new law took effect in February, limited data show a slow start. Some police have embraced the new ticketing system, but others have shifted their attention elsewhere.

The Grants Pass Police Department handed out 250 tickets by the end of October. Capt. Todd Moran told The Oregonian that his officers had given 35 people multiple tickets, but most of those violators are not using the hotline or appearing in court. Since February, arrests for drug possession have fallen from 1,200 per month to 200 per month, The Oregonian reported. The arrests are mostly for possessing large amounts of drugs.

Elsewhere in the state, officers have issued far fewer tickets than the previous number of arrests for drug possession. Jim Ferraris, a former police chief and former president of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police, explained to Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), “If a law enforcement agency head has a stack of uninvestigated felony crimes, it’s a pretty tough bill to fill to think that law enforcement executive is going to divert resources to issuing $100 tickets that don’t appear to have an impact.” The Portland Police Bureau is one of the state’s largest, but by July it had only issued seven tickets under Measure 110. “I don’t find it surprising when you consider that we are not the police department we used to be,” Sgt. Kevin Allen told OPB, referring to the department’s size. “Taking the time to write out these citations and fill out the appropriate paperwork is simply not a priority when there are so many other demands on their time.”

According to Pew, about half of the people who received citations through September for possessing small amounts of drugs did not attend their court date. Authorities issued 1,300 citations, but only seven defendants submitted a health assessment to waive the fine. Only 51 people had called the hotline by the beginning of November. Meanwhile, preliminary data suggest this year could see more opioid overdoses in Oregon than in 2020, when overdoses jumped 65 percent in the state.

Some supporters argue there are insufficient data to judge the new law, which went into effect this year, after the pandemic caused staffing shortages in some existing recovery facilities. But even some who support decriminalizing drugs said it wasn’t the right time.

“Most places that have successfully done decriminalization have already worked on a robust and comprehensive treatment system,” Reginald Richardson, director of the state’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission, told NPR. “Unfortunately, here in Oregon, we don’t have that.” Without sufficient treatment resources, the criminal justice system becomes “a necessary proxy,” said Richardson.

Eric Hussar, a family physician in Marietta, Pa., and a member of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, said he believed decriminalization could be helpful only as an alternate approach to enforcing laws meant to discourage drug use and keep addicts accountable. “The penalty for being caught with drugs should be substantial, even if not leading to arrest or imprisonment,” he said in an email.

Meanwhile, some critics question the strategy of decriminalizing drugs altogether. Sometimes hitting “rock bottom” is needed to wake people up to the seriousness of their addiction. Critics argue that decreasing the penalties will result in more people trying drugs. 

When Maine considered a decriminalization bill earlier this year, Maine Drug Enforcement Agency director Roy McKinney summarized it this way in his written testimony: Decriminalizing drugs “sends a mixed message that fails to recognize how dangerous these drugs are and normalizes their possession.”

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and criminal justice. She resides with her family in Atlanta.


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