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Oregon will become the first state in the nation to decriminalize illicit drugs — including opioids, meth and cocaine — after voters approved a ballot measure on Tuesday.
When enacted, the proposal will remove criminal penalties for possession and use of small amounts of drugs. Drugs will still be illegal, but offenders will be given the option of paying a $100 fine or attending a health assessment at an addiction treatment center rather than jail time. Selling and manufacturing drugs will remain criminal acts. The measure will also divert money that historically was used to enforce drug laws to fund drug addiction treatment programs.
As marijuana laws have gradually been eliminated across the country— including several states that voted for legalization in this election — drug reform advocates have been pursuing new ways to roll back laws passed as part of the war on drugs, which has contributed to a massive increase in incarceration in the U.S. over the past four decades. On Tuesday, Oregon voters also approved a separate measure to legalize the use of psilocybin mushrooms, aka magic mushrooms, for medical purposes.
No state in the U.S. has decriminalized hard drugs, but Oregon’s proposal is similar to policies that have been in place in Portugal for nearly two decades.
Why there’s debate
Supporters of decriminalizing drugs say it’s a crucial step in reversing the damage caused by overly punitive anti-drug laws that have put millions of people, especially people of color, in jail while doing little to remedy substance abuse. Drug use, they argue, should be seen as a public health crisis, not a criminal justice issue. Decriminalizing drugs could save lives by removing the barriers that block many from accessing addiction treatment and freeing up resources for preventing violence that stems from the drug trade.
Overdose deaths have decreased dramatically in Portugal since it decriminalized drug use in 2001, and HIV infections fell as well. The country also hasn’t seen a spike in overall drug use, as many decriminalization skeptics had feared.
Opponents of decriminalization argue that removing criminal penalties will make people, especially children, more likely to experiment with illicit drugs and eventually become addicted. Reduced enforcement of low-level drug offenses may also cause an increase in violent crime, they argue.
Others say the threat of jail time can be an important tool for motivating drug users to enroll in addiction treatment programs, which are often offered as an alternative to incarceration. Some reform advocates say that decriminalization on its own won’t make much of a difference unless it’s paired with a substantial investment in other harm reduction measures.
Drug decriminalization will go into effect in Oregon on Feb. 1. The movement to reform drug laws is poised to press forward in many states and possibly nationally. Joe Biden has pledged to decriminalize marijuana nationwide and reduce penalties for some drug crimes if he’s elected president.
Decriminalizing drugs would save money and save lives
“While no policy or program is a panacea, evidence-based measures can reduce harm and save lives. One such measure is the decriminalization of drugs, which evidence suggests facilitates treatment for those who want it, helps efficiently direct scarce health-care and justice-system resources, and ultimately saves lives.” — David Moscrop, Washington Post
Decriminalization would lead to an increase in violent crime
“Stealing money and property to fund the addiction is a motivation listed in criminal complaints all too often; those same complaints often include child neglect and disorderly conduct. If possession alone is ignored or just a slap on the wrist, there is nothing to stop more serious crimes from happening in the future.” — John Sloca, Kenosha News (Wisc.)
Drug abuse is a public health problem, not a criminal one
“Substance abuse has been designated by the American Medical Association as a medical diagnosis, not a moral failure, for 40 years. Yet we continue to deal with it as a criminal offense, declaring a war on drugs, with punishment rather than effective evidence-based medical treatment.” — John French, Statesman Journal (Salem, Ore.)
The legal process provides an important path to addiction treatment
“Most people struggling with addiction can’t stop using drugs on their own. If they could, they wouldn’t be addicted. However, many people in long-term recovery credit the motivation of court diversion programs with ‘saving my life’ or ‘rescuing me from myself.’” — Heather Jefferis and Se-ah-dom Edmo, the Oregonian
Decriminalization on its own can’t fix things
“To substantially shift the experiences of people who use drugs in their communities, decriminalization must be coupled with meaningful police reform and efforts to build-up systems of support and care. This is because police take advantage of wide discretion, continuing to surveil and control people who use drugs.” — Public health researcher Leo Beletsky to the Appeal
The harms of punitive drug laws are worse than what decriminalization may bring
“In drug policy, there are many trade-offs. Though we may not have strong evidence that drug decriminalization alone is widely beneficial, we also lack compelling evidence of benefits from criminalizing drug use, which costs the United States billions of dollars annually, much of it because of incarceration.” — Austin Frakt, New York Times
Harsh drug laws perpetuate the cycle of addiction
“Incarceration for addiction makes matters much worse for everyone and exacerbates the untreated health complications of those with addiction. Without access to drug treatment and recovery services, the cycle of drug use/jail time/and back on the street continues, with no support to help people find a way out.” — Robert A. Lowe and Ray G. Stangeland, Oregonian
We shouldn't promote the idea that drug use is OK
“Sending a message that this is just a medical problem is not the right way to go. We have to let the public know that this is something that should not be encouraged, it should be discouraged.” — Luke Niforators, Fox News
People should be free to use drugs if they want to
“Americans should be free to ingest whatever they choose — cigarette smoke, trans fats, mega-sodas, and/or methamphetamine. I’m skeptical that [a] significant number of people will begin shooting heroin simply because possession of small amounts of the drug have been decriminalized. We already enforce our drug laws arbitrarily.” — David Harsanyi, National Review
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