Oregon’s Drug Decriminalization Going Down in Flames

Oregon’s progressive attempt to fight drug addiction by removing criminal penalties and replacing them with recovery support is falling apart. Measure 110, in place for 18 months, shows no signs of being a serious solution to the drug crisis.

The $300 million allocated for the program comes from marijuana tax revenue — a novel approach. And while attempting to replace legal punishments with treatment is a commendable idea on the surface, in practice it is an almost complete failure.

Voters in 2020 approved the measure that decriminalized minor amounts of heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and meth, among other strong drugs. Possession now means nothing more than a traffic ticket, and the top penalty is a $100 fine.

And the cherry on top is that the fine is dismissed if the violator calls Lines for Life, a drug helpline, and has a health assessment. Funneling drug abusers towards getting treatment has a certain nobility to it, but the numbers paint a different reality.

In its first year, over 16,000 Oregonians utilized the services available. While that figure seems encouraging, the sad fact is less than 1% of those actually entered treatment.

Most used Measure 110 funds for needle exchanges and naloxone, the drug designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose.

Nearly half of those who received citations neither utilized the hotline service or showed up for court. Far worse numbers show 1,069 overdose deaths last year, an all-time record and 41% higher than 2020.

Supporters say the process simply has not had enough time. According to Tera Hurst, executive director of the Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance, the shift from “a terribly traumatizing and racist system” to an informed and recovery-based system “doesn’t happen overnight.”

Measure 110 is modeled on Portugal’s similar push that began in 2001. Anyone found with under a 10-day drug supply faces mandatory medical treatment. Defenders of Oregon’s law note the country took two years to implement a careful transition into a ready recovery system.

They say the state “put the cart before the horse” by not having a viable treatment system in place when the measure was implemented.

Whether the recovery apparatus was unprepared or addicts simply do not want help — or both — Oregon’s model is not working so far. Remember, this is held up as a template for other states to follow its lead, but far more positive results must appear before that’s likely to happen.