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Oregon's Decriminalizing Drug Policy Backfiring Two Years Later

In November 2020, Oregonians overwhelmingly passed referendum Measure 110, the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, which decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs. Voters in the first (and so far only) state to do so believed they were leading the nation’s first drug policy overhaul since the war on drugs – an anti-drug campaign initiated in 1971 by President Richard Nixon and expanded in the next decade by President Ronald Reagan, reports the Christian Science Monitor. The war on drugs encouraged criminal punishment for drug-related offenses, including possession, and dramatically increased the incarceration of drug users. For decades, members of racial minority groups have been disproportionately targeted and jailed for drug possession, Measure 110 advocates argued, with nothing to show for these policies but an ongoing national drug epidemic. Oregon, with its history of pushing bold social policy, decided to try something different.

Under Measure 110, personal possession of controlled substances like fentanyl, heroin, and meth is now a Class E violation subject to a $100 fine – less than for driving without wearing a seat belt. Almost three years later, this statewide experiment hasn’t gone according to plan. The number of opioid overdose deaths in Oregon almost doubled between 2020 and 2022. Homelessness has skyrocketed. Homicides in Portland reached record levels in 2021 and 2022. Not all of these problems are traceable to Measure 110, and so far this year, violent crime is down almost 9% in Oregon’s big cities. A recent poll found that 63% of Oregonians would support reinstating criminal punishments for drug possession.“It’s been a lot harder than I think most of us anticipated,” says Tera Hurst of Health Justice Recovery Alliance, the nonprofit overseeing Measure 110’s rollout. “It was stuff that none of us had ever done. There wasn’t a playbook for it. And the pandemic is the period at the end of that sentence.”


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