Oregon Voters Decriminalize Possessing Illegal Drugs

The ballot measure makes personally possessing small amounts of drugs a civil violation, while also providing addiction services funding.

a design of the state of oregon with icons for marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and mushrooms
Credit: Shutterstock/D Peterschmidt

state of science iconThis segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story by Amelia Templeton originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Oregonians made their state the first in the United States to decriminalize the personal possession of illegal drugs, including cocaine, heroin, oxycodone and methamphetamine.

Measure 110 was passing by a wide margin in unofficial returns updated Wednesday morning.

The ballot measure reclassifies possession of small amounts of drugs as a civil violation, similar to a traffic offense. The penalty becomes a $100 fine, which a person can avoid by agreeing to participate in a health assessment. Selling and manufacturing drugs will remain illegal.

“It takes a lot of courage to try something new, and I’m really proud of our state,” said Haven Wheelock, a harm reduction specialist at Outside In and one of the petitioners who filed the measure. “I’m excited to be a model for other places to show that we don’t have to harm people for being sick.”

The decriminalization provisions of the measure take effect on Feb. 1.

The measure also funds health assessments, addiction treatment, harm-reduction efforts and other services for people with addiction disorders. Funding those programs will come through the reallocation of tens of millions of dollars generated by Oregon’s cannabis tax. The measure also is expected to generate savings in the criminal justice system because of fewer drug arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations. Those savings would be redirected into a new state fund for treatment and other services.

Measure 110 is the latest example of the state’s citizen initiative process being used by national advocates of drug legalization to advance their policy goals.

The New York-based advocacy organization Drug Policy Alliance wrote the measure and spent more than $4 million on the yes campaign.

“Oregonians understand that we should be treating drug use as a health issue,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “It is a huge sledgehammer to the cornerstone of the war on drugs.”

The group hopes to use the Oregon victory to convince advocates in other states that drug legalization is politically viable.

“We saw this with marijuana, the domino effect. We are hoping that as the country is having conversations about how to use our resources, how to deal with our loved ones, that Oregon will potentially lead the way,” Frederique said.

The measure’s opponents argued that Oregon was the wrong place to choose as a test case for a new approach to illicit drug use and addiction.

The state struggles with some of the highest rates of substance abuse in the nation and among the poorest rates of access to services, according to an analysis by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

The measure’s opponents included the Oregon District Attorneys Association.

“I am hopeful with this new effort that it will be successful to address addiction, but I think everyone can agree its an experiment,” said Kevin Barton, the district attorney for Washington County.

One concern in particular for opponents is the absence of any language in Measure 110 specifying how the system of civil penalties would play out in cases involving juveniles caught possessing drugs, and whether their parents will be notified.

“The biggest question is what to do for teenagers who are using these highly addictive street drugs who choose not to engage in treatment,” Barton said.

The measure divided local organizations that serve and advocate for people in recovery from addiction: two groups, Oregon Recovers and the Oregon Council for Behavioral Health, came out in opposition to it.

With the measure clearly passing, Oregon Recovers plans to lobby the legislature and the governor for changes as its is implemented.

“I think it’s flawed,” said Mike Marshall, executive director of Oregon Recovers. “But it is now the will of the people.”

Marshall said his priorities include backfilling cannabis tax dollars that could be cut from city and county mental health and addiction programs, as part of Measure 110′s redistribution of that revenue.

Wheelock, for her part, says she welcomes working with as broad a coalition as possible to create the state’s new health-based approach to addiction.

“This is not the end of the road for solving the addiction crisis in our state. It’s not the end of the road for solving our race-based policing of communities of color,” Wheelock said. “We have a lot of work to do. We’re not done. Tonight we celebrate this.”

Countries that have decriminalized drug possession are Uruguay, Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

Meet the Writer

About Amelia Templeton

Amelia Templeton is a health reporter with Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, Oregon.

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