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Amid Pandemic Overdose Surge, Oregon Becomes First State To Decriminalize All Drug Possession


In the midst of an opioid addiction crisis that has worsened dramatically, with drug overdoses spiking by about 18 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic, Oregon has moved to decriminalize the possession of all drugs, including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA, oxycodone, and others. Now, residents in the state will be forced to deal with the consequences of the radical policy.

Prior to Measure 110, which initially passed on Nov. 3 with over 58 percent approval but went into effect on Monday, possession of Schedule I-IV classified drugs landed offenders with a Class A misdemeanor. Now while people who sell illicit substances will still face criminal penalties, the same consequences will not apply to the actual consumers. Users will now face a $100 slap on the wrist as well as a “health assessment” for addiction treatment services. Essentially, being caught with fatal narcotics in Oregon is now equivalent to a routine traffic ticket.

“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,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “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. 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.”

The new drug law, however, comes as substance abuse, overdoses, and other deaths of despair are on the rise across the United States in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from December 2020, there have been more than 81,000 overdose fatalities measured at the conclusion of May 2020, “the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period,” with the numbers suggesting a particular rise during the pandemic. Additionally, in June 2020, medical researchers found that “those with substance use disorders (SUD) are particularly vulnerable” to COVID-19.

“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” said then-CDC Director Robert Redfield. “We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.”

With individuals turning to vices as remedies for the effects of unemployment, death, and the closure of civil society, the decision by Oregon is arguably untimely. Addiction expert Tim Ryan concurs with Redfield, previously telling The Federalist that we are seeing “a pandemic within a pandemic,” in relation to spikes in drug usage among Americans.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was a partial financial backer of the legislation, having donated approximately $500,000 to the Drug Policy Alliance. Other backers of the decriminalization initiative include marijuana reform advocate Anthony Johnson, public health official Haven Wheelock, who founded a “syringe exchange” program in Oregon, and Janie Gullickson, executive director of the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon.

Many people in Oregon, particularly the district attorneys who fought Measure 110 until the very end, are dissatisfied with the attempt to reclassify all drugs under one indistinguishable category. Several attorneys argued that Measure 110 “recklessly decriminalizes possession of the most dangerous types of drugs [and] will lead to an increase in acceptability of dangerous drugs.” Dr. Paul Coelho, an employee at Salem Health Hospitals and Clinics was one of the main dissenters, saying:

The framers of ballot measure 110 portray individuals with active addictions as rational actors who will naturally seek out and accept treatment for their condition. But I can assure you as a front-line provider this is simply not true, nor is the levying of a token $100.00 fine a financial disincentive of sufficient magnitude to coax the ambivalent or pre-contemplative person into a life of abstinence or long-term recovery. Unfortunately, removing the threat of incarceration and abandoning the collaboration between law enforcement, the judiciary, probation, and the drug court system will result in a revolving door of drug abuse, treatment refusal, crime, homelessness, and ongoing costly health related expenditures for hospitalizations due to overdose, infections, and drug-induced psychosis.

The website “Vote No On Measure 110” was the prominent aggregate voice for the opposition and continues to be a place for people to read up on the latest stories on the new law. Dozens of organizations in Oregon opposed Measure 110, including Oregon Recovers, Oregon Catholic Conference, Mental Health Association of Portland, Oregon Association Chiefs of Police, Oregon Council for Behavioral Health, and many other individual physicians.

This new and unprecedented legislation comes on the heels of Oregon’s Measure 91 for the legalization of recreational marijuana, which narrowly passed by only about 200,000 votes in 2014. According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, Oregon is ranked as having one of the highest rates, on par with California, Washington state, and New York. There are currently 15,876 homeless people in Oregon, representing approximately 2.6 percent of the total U.S. homeless population. It is unclear as to how this new legislation decriminalizing a whole swath of fatal drugs will aid people in getting off the streets.

California similarly experiences a high level of addiction and homelessness, regardless of attempts to decriminalize and legalize marijuana. According to a University of California, Los Angeles report compiled at the end of 2019, California “has enough homeless students to fill Dodger Stadium 5 Times.” Simultaneously, it is evident that drugs are a leading factor in poverty itself. The National Alliance to End Homelessness found in 2017 that as high as 35 percent of individuals who are homeless also have a drug addiction, illustrating the linkage between extreme poverty and illicit narcotics usage.

Oregon’s trailblazing in drug decriminalization sets a precedent for other progressive states, where if they follow suit, an increase in illicit substances promises to exacerbate levels of poverty, homelessness, and needless deaths.