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Oregon becomes the first state to decriminalize the possession of hard drugs like heroin and cocaine

The act removes criminal penalties for low-level possession of all drugs and replaces them with the option of paying a fine or attending addiction recovery centers.

Oregon becomes the first state to decriminalize the possession of hard drugs like heroin and cocaine
Cover Image Source: Getty Images (representative)

A nationwide push to relax drug laws took a significant step forward on Tuesday when Oregon voters approved a controversial ballot measure decriminalizing possession of small amounts of so-called hard drugs, including cocaine, heroin, oxycodone, and methamphetamines. "Instead of arresting people for possession of small amounts of drugs, Measure 110 will greatly expand access to drug treatment and recovery services for anyone who wants and needs them, paid for by existing marijuana tax money," states the Yes on Measure 110 campaign website. While the act does not legalize any drugs, it does remove criminal penalties for low-level possession of all drugs — currently classified as misdemeanors — and replace them with the option of paying a $100 fine or attending new "addiction recovery centers."




According to The Washington Post, Oregon also joined the District of Columbia in decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms while Mississippi legalized cannabis for medical use and New Jersey, Arizona, Montana, and South Dakota voted to legalize recreational marijuana (which has been legal in Oregon since 2015). Nearly a third of the states have now eased the criminal consequences of marijuana use despite it still being prohibited by federal law. While Measure 110 has faced its fair share of criticism, it also puts Oregon at the forefront of shifting American attitudes about what communities should do about drug abuse.




Supporters of the Act claim that it presents a remedy to the nation's nearly 40-years-long war on drugs, which has done little to improve society and has instead wreaked havoc on minority communities. "Today's victory is a landmark declaration that the time has come to stop criminalizing people for drug use," said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which spent more than $4 million backing the Oregon measure. "Measure 110 is arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date."




According to the Associated Press, while the measure will take effect 30 days after Tuesday's election, the punishment changes won't come into effect until February 1. Addiction recovery centers must be made available by October 1. "We have been criminalizing people for at least 50 years, and what we know is that it hasn’t gotten us any closer to having our loved ones get the care that they need at the scale that it requires," said Frederique. "Criminalization is not a deterrent to use, and it’s not a humane approach. This is about recognizing that we need to support people."






People who possess larger quantities of illicit drugs could still face misdemeanor charges and felony charges will apply to people who are alleged to possess enough drugs to sell. The measure is backed by the Oregon Nurses Association, the Oregon Chapter American College of Physicians, and the Oregon Academy of Family Physicians, who said in support of the Act that one in 11 Oregonians is addicted to drugs, and nearly two people die every day from overdoses in the state. "We urgently need a change to save families and save lives," they wrote.




The measure is also expected to lead to significant reductions in racial and ethnic disparities in both convictions and arrests as an Oregon study reportedly showed that Black and Native American citizens were more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than White people. While the measure was passed with almost 60 percent support, critics condemned it as a hasty sprint toward decriminalization that would lead to an increase in the acceptability of dangerous drugs. Kevin Sabet, the founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a three-time White House Office of National Drug Control Policy adviser, called the ballot measure "a deliberate first step to legalize all drugs — heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine."




He warned that whereas the threat of criminal prosecution can be a powerful incentive for people to seek treatment, legalization could empower people to abuse drugs without fearing legal consequences. "For a lot of people, they stop drinking once they got a DUI, and they realized what they were doing was wrong," Sabet said. "I think a lot of people have gotten help through drug courts. For a lot of people, consequences are important. And I think we can find a way to marry the criminal justice and public health systems."




Meanwhile, Hubert Matthews — who struggled with drug abuse for two decades and got in trouble with the law multiple times as a result — said that the government did little to compel him into the treatment during the many times he cycled through jail in Portland. Rather, it saddled him with a crippling criminal record that has followed him around and made it harder for him to reintegrate into society when he decided to seek treatment. "What it does is it takes the criminal element out of it," he said of the measure. "That’s what does more harm. That’s what creates more barriers. If I didn’t catch those cases back in the day, things would have been different after I got clean. It took seven years for a lot of that to fall off. The only job I could get is day labor. Temp jobs. The dirty grimy jobs that pay anything but rent."

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