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How Will Oregon Reversal Affect Drug Decriminalization?

Three years ago, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize illicit drugs. Now, it’s becoming the first state to reverse course and reinstate criminal penalties for use and possession.

As states deal with a raging opioid epidemic, health advocates say Oregon's experience was complicated by several factors − and shouldn't discourage other decriminalization efforts across the U.S., says USA Today.

Decriminalization supporters say penalties lead to high rates of incarceration for drug offenses, which pose barriers to housing, jobs and other basic needs for functioning members of society on release, especially for people of color. They say criminalization doesn’t solve the larger issue of addiction and overdose deaths.

Oregon's action also comes as the federal government is expected to reclassify marijuana and recognize its medical benefits, while a growing number of states decriminalize its use and many legalize recreational use.

Other drugs on the Controlled Substances Act, including those considered to have much higher potential for abuse and dependency such as meth and heroin, remain illegal for use. “We can't think of the Oregon efforts as a failure because it was never given a chance to get off the ground,” said Jeffrey Bratberg, a clinical professor in the University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy.

The American Pharmacists Association’s policy arm last year endorsed decriminalization as a public health measure. Decriminalization is the removal of criminal penalties and prison sentences for the simple use and possession of drugs, while not legalizing or authorizing either. 

“A public health approach is to decriminalize possession and use of substances and to avoid a punitive approach, because it hasn't worked. The drug war has failed, and we need other approaches,” said Bratberg, who helped co-author the APhA’s position. 

In 2020, 58% of voters in Oregon passed a ballot measure to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs and invest in treatment and recovery efforts. The law went into effect in 2021.

Measure 110 did not legalize drugs, but it removed prison sentences and imposed $100 fines that could be eliminated if users contacted a hotline to undergo addiction screening.

In the years since, the measure prevented the arrests of thousands of people, said Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization that advocates for the decriminalization of drugs and backed Measure 110.


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