Update: Oregon Recriminalizes Drug Possession

Should it be legal or illegal? That is the question.

Several years after Oregon passed a first-of-its-kind law decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs, the state reversed that decision and made drug possession a crime once again.

When it comes to fighting the war on drugs, this may seem like two steps forward, two steps back.

Progress? Depends on who you ask.

In 2020, the nation experienced a surge in fatal overdoses, mostly due to the increased use of powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl. The following year marked the deadliest in U.S. history for drug-related deaths with the number of fatal overdoses exceeding 100,000 for the first time ever.

Oregon, according to sources, has the second-highest rate of substance use disorders in the country but ranks the 50th-worst for access to treatment.

As a result, Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved Measure 110, the landmark legislation that reduced punishments for possession of hard drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl and laid out a plan for people to get help through treatment rather than face criminal penalties.

However, legal leniency did not produce the outcomes they hoped for. The number of fatal overdoses in Oregon and across the nation remained high and treatment was still difficult to access.

Opponents of Measure 110 argued that it, in effect, “had only worsened open-air drug abuse.”

Which is why, on April 1, 2024, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek signed a new bill overturning the 2020 initiative and recriminalizing drug possession. Under the new legislation, personal possession of illicit drugs will be considered a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to six months in jail. Those arrested will have the option to engage in addiction treatment as an alternative to jail time.

The decision calls into question the different ways our country’s lawmakers are attempting to end the war on drugs and prompts a larger discussion about the benefits of voluntary vs. involuntary treatment.

“When you compare voluntary treatment to mandatory treatment, voluntary treatment is always going to perform a little bit better,” former Oregon Department of Corrections Director Max Williams said in a 2023 interview with Nexstar’s KRON. “But the comparison ought to be mandatory treatment versus untreated individuals on the street because they are the ones who aren’t voluntarily moving into treatment.”

For now, Oregonians are optimistic that the new law will “be the start of real and transformative change for our justice system.”

And one thing is certain: All eyes will be on Oregon to see how the state’s progressive improgressiveness impacts its persistent drug problem.

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