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What Will Other States Learn From OR Drug Decriminalization Backfire?

Oregon voters in 2020 passed Measure 110, a first-in-the-nation law decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of controlled substances such as heroin, methamphetamines, cocaine and fentanyl. Three years later, public drug use has wearied even the most tolerant Oregonians. Portland has reeled from a record number of opioid overdoses, bad press and a drop in convention and hotel bookings linked to the perception that the city is disorderly and unsafe. Now, the Oregon law faces significant overhaul or repeal, a prospect likely to slow movements in other states to treat addiction as a public health matter, not a criminal one, Stateline reports. To the north in Washington, lawmakers this year raised the penalty for drug possession to a gross misdemeanor. It’s a harsher classification than a misdemeanor, but not a felony. They also criminalized public drug use.

Maine lawmakers and policy experts have been watching Oregon carefully. There, the legislature considered but failed in 2021 to pass a bill similar to Oregon’s measure that would turn minor drug possession into civil fines. Winifred Tate of the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College is hopeful discussions will continue. Maine is a small place, Tate said, with people who are committed to addressing its addiction and overdose crises. Yet many in Maine are split on whether to move forward with a health care or law enforcement approach to future drug policy. Those fissures have emerged in discussions about how to spend a $235 million settlement with the drug companies that contributed to the opioid crisis. The quandaries are similar in California, Colorado, Massachusetts and other states considering decriminalization or other approaches aimed at reducing overdoses, including supervised injection sites. Colorado lawmakers considered but ultimately didn’t advance a bill allowing supervised drug use in some cities. I California last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a pilot program to reduce overdoses that would have allowed supervised injection sites.


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