When Measure 110, also known as the Drug Addiction and Recovery Act, goes into effect on February 21st, 2021, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, (non-prescribed) oxycodone, and several other currently illegal drugs will be decriminalized in Oregon. Going forward, a person caught with a non-commercial amount will receive a fine of up to $100, a fee they can forego if they opt to seek treatment. Effectively, Oregon has become the first state to decriminalize so-called hard drugs, substances such as heroin and cocaine that are most commonly associated with physical and psychological dependence. The addictive nature of these drugs drives home the argument that their use should be treated as a health issue, rather than a criminal one. If the impact on Oregon is comparable to places like Portugal, where similar strategies have been tried, the measure will not only reduce drug arrests and overdose rates, but positively impact more sweeping and systemic issues like racial injustice. If other states are inspired to follow Oregon’s lead, the passage of Measure 110 might mark the beginning of the end of the drug war.
Measure 110 was crafted using compelling modern research. Portugal employed a similar technique in 2001 to battle its epidemic of drugs and drug-related disease, decriminalizing drugs while reframing the national conversation. A 2015 study on the strategy found that the per capita social cost of drug abuse — mainly medical and legal expenses for things like overdoses or arrests — fell by 18 percent in Portugal, while people incarcerated for drug-related offenses decreased by 20 percent. Some people are hopeful that Oregon could see similar results. According to the consulting firm EcoNorthwest, the cost of prosecuting a misdemeanor drug case can be as much as triple the cost of sending a person to treatment. The Portugal strategy also led to a vast reduction in overdoses and overdose deaths, as well as an overall reduction in the spread of infectious diseases. With the U.S. experiencing 71,000 overdose deaths in 2019 alone, the need for decisive action is past due.
Matt Sutton is a spokesperson for the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based group responsible for crafting and campaigning for Measure 110. According to Sutton, Measure 110 will not waste resources imposing treatment on people struggling with addiction who aren’t ready to seek help, instead expanding treatment options and access, making them available to those who are. The treatment options that will be offered include not just abstinence-based programs like detox and rehab, but also alternative treatments like Medication Assisted Therapy, and resources for those seeking employment and housing. The funding for those programs is another innovative component of the measure: The money will come from the taxation of Oregon’s Recreational Marijuana industry. Since the tax revenue from recreational marijuana in Oregon vastly exceeded the initial state’s projection of between $17 million and $40 million per year, the reform diverts any tax revenue over $45 million to addiction treatment services.
Measure 110 brings us to the precipice of sweeping change: For the first time in U.S. history, a piece of drug reform has the potential to decriminalize addiction. Overdose rates are expected to fall in Oregon. Money will be saved and access to treatment will increase. It’s a moment equivalent to the legalization of medical marijuana in California in 1996, of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington in 2012. Both events were turning points in the war on drugs, inspiring both conservative and liberal states throughout the country to follow suit in the ensuing years.
It is a change that could not come soon enough. Two of the most catastrophic incidents of racial injustice to occur this year arguably would not have happened without the criminalization of drugs: the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The criminal-justice system continually uses drug laws as an excuse to police and incarcerate persons of color in the United States at such disproportionate rates that they’re often discussed as the modern equivalent to Jim Crow. According to the Bureau of Justice, black people are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug crimes than white people, despite using drugs at approximately the same rate. The disenfranchisement of black people in America due to the drug war and the toll it takes on generations of black families is among the most prominent reasons for our current racial-injustice crisis.
“We’re going to see a cascade of efforts across the country, of other states implementing similar policies that put public health and people ahead of criminalization,” said Sutton. The DPA is currently aiding similar efforts in Washington, Vermont, and California. They’ve introduced a federal framework for full drug decriminalization for which they will soon announce a congressional sponsor. While little was made of the fact that two of the democratic candidates for president — Andrew Yang and Beto O’Rourke — expressed support for drug policy similar to Measure 110 on a federal level, it seems that at least some politicians see the benefits of taking such policies national.
The problems associated with addiction have become so pressing that this seemingly radical measure passed by a margin of 17 points. Nearly every American has some personal connection to either the harrowing consequences of our nation’s drug laws or the devastation of addiction, including our president-elect. Joe Biden’s history of governing pertaining to these issues is fraught, but it predates him becoming one of the many Americans to personally feel the weight of this crisis. Biden’s empathy is one of his most evident strengths. If our new president is determined to begin a new era of healing, drug decriminalization and criminal-justice reform is the path forward. And Oregon may have just started us down that path.