May 27, 2024

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Oregon Reverses Course: From Decriminalization to Recriminalization of Drug Possession

Oregon Reverses Course: From Decriminalization to Recriminalization of Drug Possession



Oregon Reverses Course: From Decriminalization to Recriminalization of Drug Possession

In a significant policy shift, Oregon passed a law in April 2024 that recriminalizes the possession of small amounts of hard drugs.

This move comes just three years after the state became the first in the US to decriminalize such possession through Measure 110, prioritizing treatment over punishment.

The new law, effective in September 2024, carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail for possession. This article explores the factors behind this policy reversal and the ongoing debate surrounding drug decriminalization.

Oregon Reverses Course: From Decriminalization to Recriminalization of Drug Possession


The Rise of Fentanyl and Overdose Deaths

A key factor driving Oregon’s change is a drastic increase in overdose deaths, particularly those linked to fentanyl. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid significantly more potent than heroin, has become a growing concern across the US. A 2022 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that fentanyl-involved overdose deaths quadrupled nationally between 2015 and 2019 ([Scholl et al., 2022]). Oregon has not been immune to this trend. Governor Kate Brown declared a state of emergency in January 2024 citing the “never-before-seen lethality and toxicity” of fentanyl ([Office of the Governor, Oregon, 2024]). State data depicts a grim picture: opioid overdose deaths (excluding suicides) jumped from 280 in 2019 to a staggering 956 in 2022.

Proponents of decriminalization argue a causal link between the policy and the rise in overdoses hasn’t been established. A 2023 study in the International Journal of Drug Policy by Han et al. analyzing data from Oregon after decriminalization found no significant association between the policy and overdose deaths. However, the study acknowledges the limited timeframe of available data, highlighting the need for longer-term analysis.

Public Perception and Policy Change

The surge in overdoses coincided with a shift in public perception towards decriminalization. While Measure 110 passed with public support in 2020, concerns grew around increased public drug use and its perceived association with the rise in overdoses. A 2024 Pew Research Center poll found a national decline in support for drug decriminalization, with only 32% of Americans in favor ([Pew Research Center, 2024]).

Oregon lawmakers responded to these concerns and the overdose crisis. The new law, House Bill 4002, emphasizes a return to a public health approach alongside some criminal penalties. The bill allocates additional funding for addiction treatment programs while recriminalizing possession. This reflects a middle ground often proposed in the decriminalization debate – balancing treatment options with addressing public concerns around open drug use.

The Ongoing Decriminalization Debate

Oregon’s policy reversal reignites the national conversation on drug decriminalization. Proponents argue that decriminalization removes the stigma associated with addiction, allowing individuals to seek help without fear of arrest. They point to Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs in 2001, as a successful model with lower rates of drug-related deaths compared to the US ([Maclean et al., 2014]). However, critics argue that Portugal’s success is attributable to a robust social safety net and treatment infrastructure that the US lacks.

Further research is needed to understand the long-term effects of decriminalization on public health and safety. Oregon’s policy reversal, while driven by a specific context, highlights the complexity of this issue. The state’s experience offers valuable data points for ongoing national and international discussions surrounding drug policy reform.

Looking Ahead

Oregon’s policy shift underscores the constantly evolving landscape of drug policy. While the state prioritizes a public health approach through increased treatment funding, the recriminalization aspect remains controversial. The coming months and years will be crucial for evaluating the effectiveness of the new law and its impact on overdose rates, treatment access, and public safety. Oregon’s experience will undoubtedly inform future discussions on drug decriminalization efforts across the US.

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Oregon Reverses Course: From Decriminalization to Recriminalization of Drug Possession

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