Oregon Just Voted to Decriminalize Heroin, Cocaine, and Meth

The new punishment for petty possession of any illegal drug will be the legal equivalent of a traffic ticket.
November 4, 2020, 1:19pm
Mason Hill, drops off his ballot at the Linn County Courthouse in Albany, Ore., on Election Day, Tuesday Nov. 3, 2020. (Mark Ylen/Albany Democrat-Herald via AP)

Whatever happens with the rest of the 2020 election, the state of Oregon made history on Tuesday by decriminalizing possession of all illegal drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and meth. 

Oregon’s Measure 110 — the first state law of its kind in the United States — won with support from an emphatic 59% majority of voters. The measure does not technically legalize any drugs, but on February 1 the state will stop jailing people for petty possession. The new punishment will be the legal equivalent of a traffic ticket, with violators given the option of paying a $100 fine or being referred to options for addiction treatment

The outcome marks a historic shift in U.S. drug policy, with Oregon aiming to replicate the success of similar experiments in Portugal, Switzerland, and a handful of other countries where punitive drug laws have been rolled back in favor of a more public health-oriented approach.

"There's a lot of people who want to see punitive drug laws done away with, and really the entire drug war,” said Matt Sutton, a spokesperson for the Drug Policy Alliance, which organized the campaign for Measure 110. “This shows it's 100% possible that we can do that."

Federal authorities will still be able to aggressively enforce drug laws in Oregon, and anybody caught with dealer-sized quantities will still face arrest and criminal prosecution under existing state laws. But the state’s lowest-level drug offenders will soon encounter a completely overhauled system. Drugs alone will no longer be grounds for an arrest. And the long-term consequences for being caught with recreational quantities of drugs will all but vanish. 

“It’s the kind of violation where even if you don't pay the fine or get the health assessment, you still won’t go to jail,” Sutton said.

The decriminalization measure will use an estimated $100 million in tax revenue from legal marijuana sales in Oregon to dramatically expand social services for drug users, including more housing, medication-assisted treatment, and harm reduction services. 

Haven Wheelock, who provides harm reduction services to drug users through Outside In, a Portland non-profit, expects the new law to have an immediate impact, especially for people who have been cycling in and out of jail for low-level drug cases.

“It’s going to be huge,” Wheelock said. “It’s going to allow people to get the services they need without fear of arrest. It’s going to change how people who don’t use drugs think about drug use. It’s going to allow us to move into a health-based system and hopefully be a model for other places. We have an opportunity to show the rest of the country this is how it should be.”

Opponents of Measure 110 — mainly law enforcement groups — fear the lack of criminal penalties will just encourage more people to use hard drugs. Portland, like other major cities on the West Coast, has experienced a dramatic rise in homelessness in recent years, and there’s been a nationwide surge in fatal overdoses fueled by the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.

But to the people who pushed for decriminalization, punitive drug laws have only made matters worse by stigmatizing users and perpetuating racial disparities in the criminal justice system. A pre-election report by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission estimated that the state’s new measure could reduce “the significant overrepresentation of Black Oregonians” arrested for low-level drug offenses by nearly 95%.

At least 25 countries have introduced some form of drug decriminalization, but Portugal is perhaps the best known example. The country enacted sweeping decriminalization in 2001 and saw new HIV infections and overdose deaths plummet in the following years. Overall rates of drug use in the country fell in the first 15 years, and now track roughly with the rest of Europe.

Oregon has been flirting with the Portugal model for years, starting with a change in 2017 that made drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony. But it took a well-organized and deep-pocketed campaign — with TV ads bankrolled by $500,000 from a foundation run by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife — to convince state voters to go all in. Oregon also approved a second drug-related ballot initiative Tuesday, with nearly 56% of voters backing an initiative that legalizes psilocybin mushrooms, another first for a U.S. state. 

Wheelock, who was involved in the decriminalization campaign from the outset two years ago, said it doesn’t feel to her like Oregon is moving ahead too quickly with its drug law reforms.

“I’ve been watching the people I care about die and go to jail for 20 years,” Wheelock said. “It feels like a long time coming.”