Across the state of Oregon, people found by police to be in possession of small amounts of any controlled substance—from cocaine to methamphetamine to heroine—are no longer subject to criminal penalties. The successful November 2020 ballot measure decriminalizing possession took effect February 1.
Going forward, drug users in Oregon face either a $100 fine or a health assessment at a drug treatment facility. That’s due to Measure 110 (now called Initiative Petition 44), a ballot effort led by the national organization Drug Policy Action, the advocacy arm of the Drug Policy Alliance* (DPA), and by the community-based Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance. The law has people found in possession of drugs directed to substance use disorder treatment and services, harm reduction programs and potentially housing and job assistance, depending on their needs.
The law only covers less than one gram for heroin; less than one gram, or less than 5 pills, of MDMA; less than 2 grams of methamphetamine or cocaine; less than 40 “units” of LSD; less than 12 grams of psilocybin; less than 40 “units” of methadone; and less than 40 pills of oxycodone. These quantity limits on the new law are quite small, as any frequent drug user will realize (for example, an eight-ball, a standard personal use quantity, is more than 3 grams).
Individuals found carrying slightly larger quantities will now be subject to misdemeanor charges rather than felony charges. Those limits run from 1-3 grams for heroin; 1-4 grams for MDMA; and 2-8 grams for methamphetamine or cocaine.
For advocates, the racial justice implications of the new law are paramount. “Our current drug laws can ruin lives based on a single mistake,” Bobby Byrd, one of the IP44 campaign organizers and Black resident of Portland, Oregon arrested on drug charges, told The Skanner, Oregon’s oldest Black-owned publication, “sticking you with a lifelong criminal record that prevents you from getting jobs, housing and more.”
Disparities in arrests affecting Black and Indigenous Oregonians will be almost entirely eliminated, according to findings released released by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office.
“For the first time in at least half a century, one place in the United States—Oregon—will show us that we can give people help without punishing them,” said Kassandra Frederique, DPA’s executive director, in a February 1 statement. “This law is meant to protect people against persecution, harassment and criminalization at the hands of the state for using drugs and instead given access to the supports they need.”
Oregon’s new approach is similar to Portugal’s. There, people found to be in possession of small quantities of drugs by police are referred to so-called dissuasion commissions based in public health, and not criminal punishment (though they may face fines). Evidence suggests the reform has helped to mitigate preventable health harms: Overdose and new HIV infection rates plummeted in the wake of the policy change.
“Today, the first domino of our cruel and inhumane war on drugs has fallen—setting off what we expect to be a cascade of other efforts centering health over criminalization,” Frederique continued in the statement. “Over the last year, we have been painfully reminded of the harms that come from drug war policing and the absence of necessary health services and other support systems in our communities.”
At least 339 people fatally overdosed in Oregon in the first half of 2020. That death toll is 40 percent higher than the fatalities in the same period in 2019, and a 35 percent increase from the number of deaths in the previous six-month period (July to December 2019). The devastating spikes are mirrored on the national level.
The Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance frames the decriminalization reform as a response to the state’s overdose crisis. But, according to many advocates and researchers, it’s only one component of the actions needed to end fatal overdoses. As British Columbia’s Office of the Provincial Health Officer noted in a report advocating small-possession criminalization, the policy “cannot independently resolve all associated harms,” though it can “mitigate the harms linked to substance use (e.g., overdose) and the legacy and ongoing impact of failed historical strategies and policies associated with substance use.”
The other key action is the creation of a regulated, safe supply. An October 2020 journal article authored by Canadian drug user activist and Filter contributor Matthew Bonn and epidemiologists made the case for implementing both decriminalization and safe supply, the latter of which they defined as “a legal and regulated supply of mind- or body-altering substances that traditionally only have been accessible through illicit markets.”
This is crucial to mitigating the syndemic of COVID, fatal overdose, HIV and hepatitis C. The particular policy strategy is still being debated and refined, most recently with Vancouver-based opioid vending machines called MySafe and British Columbia’s April 2020 safe supply prescribing guidelines amid the pandemic.
The authors stated that a safe supply program would ensure drugs are “appropriately dosed and not adulterated,” addressing the issue of accidental overdoses as a result of not being aware of or preparing for the presence of fentanyl and other unknown substances in one’s bag. A reliable supply would reduce the need to share drugs and use supplies and maintain social distancing by eliminating participants’ usual hustle to access drugs—all while creating new linkages to care for participants.
Simply removing criminal penalties—which will likely improve health outcomes—is not enough to end the health harms of prohibition. After all, prohibition and its attendant “iron law” of producing an inconsistent, ever-more potent drug supply chain remain intact. “Demand is here to stay, so drugs should be made under safe, regulated conditions,” drug anthropologist Hilary Agro wrote last year in Passage. “Decriminalization will send fewer people to prison, but it will keep sending people to the morgue.”
*DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.