Oregon drug decriminalization leads to surge in overdoses

by Jacob Fuller
Oregon drug decriminalization leads to surge in overdoses

Chris Lieberman, FISM News


Nearly two years after passing a ballot measure decriminalizing drug possession, Oregon is now seeing a sharp rise in drug overdoses and deaths, leading many to conclude that the state’s policy is a failed experiment.

In 2020, Oregon voters passed Measure 110, known as the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, which reduced the penalty for the possession of any drug ⁠— including heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine ⁠— to a civil citation, with a maximum fine of $100. That citation would be dismissed if the recipient calls a hotline to receive screening and treatment for drug addiction. The law also provides more funding for drug treatment services.

Proponents of the bill argued that treating drug addiction as a disease rather than a crime would enable more addicts to get the help and treatment they need. Advocates also claimed that drug laws disproportionately affected minority communities.

Since the law was passed, however, the drug epidemic has only worsened in Oregon. In the 12-month period ending in April 2022, over 1,100 Oregonians died of a drug overdose, a nearly 20% increase from the previous year. Meanwhile, of the over 3,100 people who had been cited through August, less than 200 had called the treatment hotline, while over 70% neither paid the fine nor showed up to court, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.

“On the one hand we have highly rewarding drugs which are widely available, and on the other little or no pressure to stop using them,” Keith Humphreys, an addiction researcher and professor at Stanford University, told Oregon’s Senate Committee on the Judiciary and Ballot Measure 110 Implementation on Wednesday. “Under those conditions, we should expect to see exactly what Oregon is experiencing: extensive drug use, extensive addiction, and not much treatment seeking.”

The rollout for funding treatment programs has picked up after a slow start, with the state announcing that $300 million has now been awarded.

Despite the program’s issues, advocates are not ready to give up yet.

“This is a brand new program. It’s a program that has never been tried or tested in the United States,” Democratic State Sen. Floyd Prozanski said. “We will need to continue to partner up with each other and different disciplines to ensure that we are, in fact, continuing to take a holistic approach … one that does hold individuals accountable.”

But others are beginning to lose patience.

“People are going to need to see progress,” lobbyist Scott Winkels told the Associated Press. “If you’re living in a community where you’re finding needles, how many times do you need to see a needle in a park before you lose your cool?”

Measure 110 is shaping up to be a major issue in the Oregon governor’s race. Republican candidate Christine Drazan says that she wants to repeal the law, while her Democratic opponent, Tina Kotek, is in favor of the measure.

Drazan tweeted, “Measure 110, which decriminalized hard drugs in Oregon, has been a complete policy failure. We can and should be investing in addiction recovery programs, but I believe we can do that without enabling a culture of drug abuse to persist on our streets.”

Despite the fact that Democrats have held the state’s governorship since 1987, polls show a close race between Drazan and Kotek, with FiveThirtyEight’s polling average giving Kotek a 46-43 edge.