By Sarah Surrey, LCSW
Oregon’s ballot includes a measure that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs, considered small enough for “personal use”. If the measure passes, the state will be the first in the country to decriminalize hard drugs. It would join a small handful of countries around the world who have had decriminalizing measures in place for a while. Here are three things to know about decriminalizing drugs.
1. Slack for users, not dealers
First, decriminalizing substances is not new territory. Twenty-six states have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana. Many states faced ballot initiatives to decriminalize only within the last five years. Most legislation focuses on reducing the criminality of small amounts of marijuana. Oregon would extend similar standards to heroin, cocaine, and LSD.
The reason criminal punishment is so severe is because of the “War on Drugs”, declared by Nixon in the 1970’s and continued in bipartisan legislation into the 1990’s. It seemed simple to handle legislatively, like a math problem with a clean solution. People caught with substances faced very concrete punishments, ranging from fines to felonies. Many faced mandatory minimum sentencing. In the past 15 years, bipartisan measures have drastically shifted. It became obvious that prisons were overflowing with people who were struggling with addiction, and not the hardened criminals from the TV commercials.
The goal behind decriminalizing substances is about finding a new way to handle victims of addiction. Almost all legislation reduces punishment for small amounts of substances, because that’s likely the amount that a person struggling with an addiction would have with them. Most measures leave legislation in place to deal severely with people who seem to be selling or trafficking substances.
2. New goals for Criminal Justice
What happens to a person who gets caught with a small amount of heroin? In Portugal, which decriminalized in 2000, that person is flagged for services. Substance use isn’t legalized, it’s decriminalized. It means that people still have to answer for possessing substances, just not through the criminal justice system. Instead, they are shifted into the medical system. Substance abuse treatment, which has grown by 20% in Portugal, is seen as the first line of defense for dealing with substance abuse. Oregon plans to do the same thing, funneling people into treatment centers funded by taxes on the local marijuana industry.
3. It works. But could it work here?
Here’s what research shows about decriminalizing, after watching the process unfold for twenty years in Portugal. The number of people who seek treatment is up, consistently. Overdose deaths fell, along with overdoses in general, and cases of HIV/Hep C. This means that the cost of treating all of those problems also fell. The number of people who made it into long term sobriety, and returned to gainful employment increased as well. These are drastic improvements that any community or family would appreciate.
There are a handful of challenges that decriminalizing brings. The first is that, for a short time, drug trafficking and substance use seemed to increase. Experts think that this might be related to the perception that substance use was legalized, but both increases tapered off over time. The second is that Portugal is a country, while Oregon is a state. Portugal could get its entire system behind the initiative, whereas individual states face struggles when they try to change things without federal support. The United States is so interconnected, with a level of federal oversight and funding in so many aspects of the functioning of a state. It will be interesting to see if a state can be successful in such a broad initiative without federal support. Lastly, there are no real borders between states, and nothing stopping people struggling with addiction from moving to Oregon to avoid consequences. It will be interesting to see if Oregon can support an influx of people struggling with addiction.
Could a country as large and diverse as the United States duplicate the effects of a country like Portugal? Oregon might be the trailblazer towards answering that question, with other states following quickly behind it. For people impacted by addiction, there’s more to watch on Tuesday than the presidential election.