Oregon Decriminalizes Drug Possession.
On November 3, 2020, voters in Oregon voted Yes on Proposition 110 to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. The measure, which passed with 60% of the vote, makes possession of small amounts of drugs a civil offense similar to a traffic ticket. Individuals found with small amounts of drugs can avoid a fine by going to a drug treatment center for assessment. The measure also calls for the creation of additional treatment centers throughout the state and earmarks funding for these treatment and assessment centers.
With the passage of Proposition 110 Oregon leads the country in the push for treatment rather than incarceration for individuals with drug convictions. Proponents of the measure say that decades of the policy of incarcerating individuals for drug possession has not been successful in rehabilitating those individuals. They say stigma of a criminal record that follows an individual for the rest of their life is a burden, making it difficult to find employment and housing, that makes recovery from addiction even more difficult.
Those opposed to Proposition 110 point out that the threat of criminal prosecution can motivate individuals to seek treatment that they might not otherwise seek. And they suggest that removing criminal penalties for drug possession may also remove a deterrent that kept more people from using hard drugs. Opponents of proposition 110 point to the success of drug courts in particular as an example of how the criminal justice system and the threat of incarceration can successfully motivate addicted individuals to get and stay clean.
The bottom line for Oregon’s decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of drugs is that the majority of Oregon voters came down on the side of treatment versus incarceration. In addition to the argument that proponents of the measure make that treating drug users as criminals has caused more harm than good for incarcerated drug users, we wonder if Oregon’s move to decriminalize drug possession also signals a slight shift in cultural attitudes about drug use in today’s society: that that drug use is not behavior that is inherently evil, sinful, or immoral and must be punished. Many people will be watching Oregon over the next several years to see if their approach will be successful.