Oregon Voters Approve Decriminalizing All Drugs in Stunning Victory

November 4, 2020

The 2020 presidential contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden has been called the most important election of a generation, and even the “fight for America’s soul.”

That doesn’t mean it was where the boldest ideas were being tested on Tuesday night.

If we’re looking for real inspirationor a step away from the dread of the top contest on the ballotwe can find it in Oregon, where voters passed Measure 110. Measure 110 decriminalizes the low-quantity possession of all drugseven so-called “hard” ones like heroin and methamphetamine. With approximately 90 percent of the vote counted by publication time, 58.6 percent of voters said yes to this change—a groundbreaking first for US drug policy.

“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 backed the measure heavily through its political arm, Drug Policy Action. “Measure 110 is arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date. It shifts the focus where it belongs—on people and public health—and removes one of the most common justifications for law enforcement to harass, arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and deport people.”

Decriminalization does not mean legalization, but possessing drugs will no longer be a crime in the Beaver State. This matters, since even the most minor drug conviction results in many forms of legal discrimination, ruining people’s abilities to find housing, jobs or financial aid for college. Balancing public concerns around drugs with public health and human rights, Measure 110 stipulates that personal, non-commercial possession of a controlled substance will henceforth be no more than a Class E violation, translating to a maximum fine of $100.

State monies obtained from legal marijuana tax revenue and prison savings will also fund new drug addiction treatment programs, as well as new harm reduction initiatives at the state level. The latter provision is unique and pioneering, as the US federal government often fails to support harm reduction programs.

“As we saw with the domino effect of marijuana legalization, we expect this victory to inspire other states to enact their own drug decriminalization policies.”

Before the vote, a number of indicators had pointed to the very real chance Measure 110 would pass. Most importantly, the Oregon Democratic Party, which dominates party allegiance for voters in the state, endorsed the initiative. In an interview with Filter, Matt Sutton of DPA also explained the benefit of the “libertarian streak of many voters in Oregon, especially in rural areas that tend to be more conservative.”

It is likely that there will be resistance from a few sectors as the state government adapts to the voter mandate. The Oregon District Attorneys Association, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s elected prosecutors, expectedly panned the initiative. Longtime criminal justice reform opponents like Washington County DA Kevin Barton and Clackamas County DA John Foote also led the failed public charge against it, with the former claiming that it would lead to “increased crime and increased drug use.” State lobbyists for the addiction treatment industry, such as the Oregon Council on Behavioral Health, also opposed Measure 110, despite the fact that it will bring increased government funds for the sector.

What any resistance to the new law will look like is yet to be seen, but one maneuver is relatively unlikely: local prosecutors siccing federal law enforcement on constituents. The measure only applies to personal, non-commercial drug possession, and these situations are already rarely prosecuted on the federal level.

Besides its benefits for the people of Oregon, an exciting aspect of Measure 110’s success is its potential influence over many other jurisdictions.

“As we saw with the domino effect of marijuana legalization, we expect this victory to inspire other states to enact their own drug decriminalization policies that prioritize health over punishment,” said Frederique.


*DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Rory Fleming

Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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