In 2020, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize possession of drugs, including hard drugs. Portland district attorney Michael Schmidt gleefully announced that his office would immediately stop prosecuting drug possession even before the law went into effect, saying, “Past punitive drug policies and laws resulted in over-policing of diverse communities, heavy reliance on correctional facilities and a failure to promote public safety and health.” Less than two years later, Oregon is suffering through the predictable results of this experiment: overdoses are skyrocketing, violent crime is rising, and virtually nobody is getting treatment.
Voters approved the Oregon law, known as Measure 110, in 2020. The law decriminalized possession of drugs, including cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and other controlled substances. Instead of a misdemeanor offense, people caught in possession of these drugs would be issued the equivalent of a traffic ticket with a small fine; all penalties would be waived if the person simply called in for a “health assessment” at an addiction-recovery center.
Criminal-justice reformers garnered support for the bill by claiming that it would reduce both addiction and alleged racial disparities in the criminal-justice system. A solitary dissenter, Paul Coelho, a physician with Salem Health Hospitals and Clinics, said, “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. . . . 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.”
Oregon should have listened. On the issue of reducing addiction and overdoses, Oregon’s decriminalization of drug use has been a tragic failure. Overdose deaths rose by over 33 percent in Oregon in 2021, the year after the law was passed, compared with a rise of 15 percent in the rest of the United States. As for the claim that the law would provide a pathway to treatment for addicts, less than 1 percent of the people eligible for treatment under Measure 110—a paltry 136 people—ended up getting help. In fact, out of the 2,576 tickets written by police for drug possession, only 116 people called the help hotline to get the ticket waived, with the vast majority of the others choosing to pay the minimal fine instead. As Coelho warned, without the threat of incarceration and the mandatory court programs that come with an arrest, addicts seldom have any interest in getting treatment.
The impact of decriminalizing drugs did not stop with addiction and overdoses. Police in Portland report that all categories of crime jumped in reaction to Measure 110. Drug addicts need money; they got it by stealing items and reselling them, so property crimes rose. Once a drug market opens up, drug dealers move in to service it. As a result, the streets of Portland are awash in guns and drugs. With drug dealers battling for turf, gun violence increased. Portland recorded 90 homicides in 2021, shattering the old record for annual murders in the city. “We’ve seen more guns than we’ve ever seen in our investigations,” a Portland police supervisor bluntly stated. “Almost everybody is armed. . . . Criminal organizations are robbing other criminal organizations. That’s kind of our big push right now—trying to stop the gun violence and the drug violence that goes with it, because they’re hand in hand. It’s not one or the other. It’s not related to the pandemic, it’s not related to Covid, it’s because we have a criminal environment that’s tolerated and allowed to flourish here.”
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once noted that “a state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Oregon has chosen to run a novel social experiment in decriminalizing hard drugs. Let’s hope the other 49 states are paying attention to the results.
Staff photo by Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images