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Oregon Could Become The First State To Decriminalize Drugs

by Paul Goldberg
Oregon Could Become The First State To Decriminalize Drugs

Huffpost reports nearly two people die every day from drug overdoses in Oregon. One out of 11 Oregonians suffer from addiction. The state also ranks last in the nation among states in access to drug treatment and recovery services for adults, according to a federal government survey on national drug use.

This fall, it might become the first state in the nation to decriminalize drug possession. Initiative 44, which will be on the ballot in November, would end the criminalization of simple drug possession of small amounts of all drugs by changing the penalties from felonies and misdemeanors to a $100 administrative fine. The initiative would also use excess tax money from the sale of legal marijuana to fund a new drug treatment, recovery and harm reduction program outside of the criminal justice system. The fine could be waived if the recipient chooses to undergo a voluntary treatment assessment under the new system.

“What we’re trying to do is put drug use back where it belongs, which is under that public health scope and completely remove it from the criminal justice system,” said Matt Sutton, a spokesman for Drug Policy Action, a national harm reduction nonprofit backing Initiative 44.

The decriminalization of drugs in Oregon would mark a significant shift toward ending the nation’s half-century war on drugs, which is largely waged to the detriment of Black, Latino and other minority communities. One of the demands of the Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has been the restructuring of the relationship between the police and communities of color. The decriminalization of drugs and creation of a treatment system separate from the criminal justice system would be one step in that direction.

The initiative’s success could lead other states to follow suit, as previous drug liberalization initiatives have done.

“Like we’ve seen with medical cannabis and cannabis legalization, the success in one state will attract policymakers in other states to follow suit,” said Anthony Johnson, the chief petitioner for Initiative 44.

The initiative was initially conceived under the shadow of a dramatic rise in drug overdose deaths related to the opioid and methamphetamine crises in the past 20 years. The national drug overdose death rate more than tripled from 1999 to 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — yet another example of the country’s failed policy of criminalizing drugs.

Initiative 44 is facing no substantive opposition and has been endorsed by groups ranging from NAACP Portland, local Black Lives Matter chapters, physicians groups and AFSCME, the government workers union whose membership includes corrections officers.

The proposal is based on the decriminalization and treatment policies adopted by Portugal in 2001. Portugal had seen a rapid increase in HIV infections due to intravenous drug use in the late 1990s. In response, it decided to decriminalize drug possession and set up a treatment and recovery system so that its citizens suffering from drug addiction could get the help they needed. The country has since seen a large reduction in HIV infections, particularly those related to intravenous drug use.

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