This past election cycle, Oregon passed a law decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of many hard drugs. The measure was proposed and passed with the aim of more effectively tackling the issues of addiction and overdose in the state.[i] Criminal justice system involvement is not an effective treatment for addiction. Nearly 80% of inmates are abusing substances and treatment programs for addicts in prison are severely lacking.[ii] In fact, drug possession offenders have a recidivism rate of nearly 80%.[iii]
Further, state officials believe the measure will greatly reduce the racial disparities in both convictions and arrests.[iv] In the United States, black people make up 13% of admitted drug users but nearly 40% of drug arrests.[v] By eliminating criminal charges for possession, Oregon hopes to reduce this discriminatory effect.
These all seem to be sound justifications but, will the law work the way its advocates intend it to? Critics believe laws like this only lead to higher rates of drug abuse. Is this concern grounded in reality?
In order to answer these questions, we can look to other places where such laws have passed and assess the outcomes. In 2001, Portugal passed a similar law with similar intentions (although racial disparities in arrests was not a concern). The outcomes were mostly positive. Opioid overdose deaths and new cases of diseases associated with intravenous drug use declined.[vi] Prison overcrowding was also greatly reduced.[vii] Although there was an increase in drug experimentation after the law passed, these behaviors rarely led to addiction.[viii]
Portugal’s decriminalization law was paired with expansions in treatment and harm reduction programs like needle exchanges.[ix] It’s these initiatives that have been most frequently credited with the positive health outcomes described above. Oregon has likewise expanded access to treatment, housing, and harm reduction services by dedicating millions of dollars from the state’s cannabis tax and monies saved from fewer criminal proceedings to fund them.[x]
So, what’s holding the rest of the country back? All arrows point to a difference in mindsets with regards to addiction. In Portugal, and most of Europe, addiction is perceived and treated as strictly a disease.[xi] In the United States, drug use is still perceived as a pervasive crime in need of punishing by some citizens. This perception is a roadblock that’s been commandeered and inflated by some politicians to prevent criminal justice reform. The majority’s view, however, does not reflect this narrative.
The effectiveness of incarceration is being increasingly called into question by the American public.[xii] A survey conducted by Pew in 2014 found that a smaller proportion of people supported mandatory drug sentences than did in 2001.[xiii] Further, a majority of those surveyed in all race, age, education, and political groups wanted the government to focus more on treatment than prosecution of drug users.[xiv]
Although Oregon exists on the extreme end of the policy options spectrum, more moderate approaches would likely receive support from most Americans. The next step is getting policymakers to align policies with these preferences. Special interests, politicking, misinformation, and more currently stand in the way.