Oregon Is Poised to Make Drug Possession a Crime Again

Democratic and Republican state lawmakers have backed legislation that would once again make it a crime to possess small amounts of drugs.

Three years after Oregon became the first U.S. state to decriminalize low-level drug possession, the state is on track to reverse parts of its groundbreaking measure. 

On Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers unveiled a proposal that would recriminalize possessing small amounts of drugs—a move that’s been criticized by harm reduction and criminal justice reform advocates. 

The proposed amendments to Measure 110, released by the Oregon Legislature’s Joint Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response, will make possessing small amounts of controlled substances a class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days of jail time or a $1,250 fine. But people will be able to negate those charges by completing a deflecting program, involving a behavioral health screening and contact with a case manager. 


Under the state’s current decriminalization policy, those offenses are considered class E violations, which come with a fine of up to $100 that is waived if a person undergoes a health screening, which includes calling a hotline.

“With this proposal, we are braiding together the public health and public safety systems to create as many effective pathways to treatment and recovery as possible through proven, evidence-based solutions,” said Representative Jason Kropf, a Democrat, in a statement about the new plan. 

The legislation, which will be introduced as an amendment when the legislative session begins on Feb 5, comes about two weeks after Oregon House Republicans announced their own bill to toughen up the state’s drug laws, including making low-level possession a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail or a $6,250 fine. 

At a press conference Tuesday, advocates for justice reform slammed the new proposals. 

“When they push forward with criminalizing people with substance use disorders by giving them jail time and fines, the government, our lawmakers, are choosing to inflict harm and violence on vulnerable Oregonians, especially Black, brown, and low income, and rural Oregonians,” said Gloria Ochoa-Sandoval, policy and political director at Unite Oregon, an organization that advocates for equity and racial justice. 

A 2021 analysis by FiveThirtyEight found that Portland police have the fifth highest racial disparities in their arrests; citations made after decriminalization kicked in disproportionately impacted Black Oregonians. Meanwhile, a study by researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University, Oregon State University, and the Oregon Department of Corrections published in the Journal of Substance Use and Addiction Treatment last year found that people recently released from incarceration face 10 times a greater risk of overdosing on opioids than the general public. 


The joint committee’s proposal said the state would be required to track the enforcement of stops, arrests, and prosecutions to monitor racial disparities. 

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Part of the backlash to Measure 110 is due to a perceived increase in public drug use, according to both supporters and opponents of the law. 

Tera Hurst, executive director at Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance, told VICE News that Measure 110 is being blamed for public drug use, when in reality, there are myriad factors driving the issue, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of affordable housing, a dearth of addiction treatment options, and an increasingly addictive and toxic drug supply.

“I understand why people are frustrated. I’m frustrated too. It’s really heartbreaking what we’re seeing on our streets,” she said. 

“Instead of demanding to repeal the one law that’s actually helping work towards solving some of these problems, we should be working on real data-driven solutions.” 

A pair of studies published last year found that Oregon’s decriminalization policy did not lead to increased overdoses or a spike in violent crime.


Hurst said there have already been major investments in harm reduction and treatment services as a result of Measure 110, which directed the state’s cannabis tax revenue to service providers. 

Recriminalizing low level possession will put an additional strain on public defenders, and mandating treatment when there’s already a severe shortage of treatment beds will be counterproductive, she added. 

The joint committee proposal claimed it would make it easier for people to obtain medications to treat opioid use disorder and would set up a new grant program for drug treatment programs. 

Oregon is not alone in its decriminalization backlash. British Columbia, Canada, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs in 2023, recently attempted to ban public drug use, but the measure was stopped by a court injunction before it could take effect. 

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