In the week of the 2020 election, the residents of Oregon overwhelmingly voted in favor of Measure 110, a bill that will decriminalize the possession of illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. Although it won’t officially go into effect until February 1st of 2021, this measure is a massive deal because Oregon is the first state to take such bold steps towards changing the way the law deals with drug offenses. According to this bill, if you are caught with a small amount of a hard drug, then it will be treated as a misdemeanor rather than a full-on crime that warrants an arrest. You can think of it as being on the same level as a traffic violation. Rather than facing jail time, the individual will be fined $100. However, this fine can be avoided if they agree to a health assessment at an addiction recovery center. This measure also seeks to expand access to addiction treatment facilities. As a state that has legalized the sale and possession of marijuana, Oregon plans to reallocate marijuana sales into these facilities, thereby helping people fight their addictions.
This measure will significantly reduce the amount of money that is spent on drug law enforcement. In 2015, for example, the federal government spent about $9.2 million every day on the incarceration of individuals with drug offenses, or over $3.3 billion annually (Templeton, 2020). On top of that, the state governments spent about $7 billion that year. It is estimated that Oregon will save about $24.5 million between 2021 and 2023 (Templeton, 2020). This will allow more taxes to be available for funding other aspects of the community such as education and drug recovery programs for the very same people that this measure will keep out of the prison system.
About one-fifth of the prison population is in jail for a drug-related charge (Pearl, 2018). Moreover, there is a significant disparity in the demographics for these kinds of arrests. Black Americans represent 30% of drug crime arrests, yet only 12.5% of them represent all drug users in the United States. Although white and black Americans use substances at an equal rate, black Americans are 6 times more likely to be arrested for drug possession. Decriminalizing drug possession would reduce the number of people of color who face harsh consequences for such petty crimes. Currently, with the way we deal with drug offenses across the country, having a drug offense can negatively impact one’s chances of getting employed. Even if they end up getting treatment, the record of their offense will follow them around and affect how other people view them.
Our society shames individuals who are addicted to drugs and our justice system reflects. It treats drug possession as an offense on par with robbery or assault. However, incarcerating individuals for possession of drugs may be doing more harm than good. Studies show that incarceration can actually increase the risk of dying from an overdose. In the first two weeks after being released from jail, an individual is 13 times more likely to die of a drug overdose than the general population (Pearl, 2018).
Our justice system has been operating on the assumption that criminalizing drugs is enough to make people abstain from substance use. Such an approach is ineffective because addiction is a chronic disease. People can’t just stop abusing drugs that they are so physically dependent on. The criminalization of drugs has contributed so highly to the stigmatization of addiction that it prevents people who suffer from a substance use disorder from stepping forward and seeking professional help for their addiction. Oregon has recognized that drug addiction is a public health crisis rather than a moral wrongdoing that warrants punishment. They are the first state to decriminalize drugs, and hopefully will not be the last.
lechenie-narkomanii. (2016). Freedom, Sky, Hands, Handcuffs, Clouds, Man. In pixabay.com. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/photos/freedom-sky-hands-handcuffs-clouds-1886402/
Pearl, B. (2018, June 27). Center for American Progress. Retrieved November 8, 2020, from Center for American Progress website: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/criminal-justice/reports/2018/06/27/452819/ending-war-drugs-numbers/
Templeton, A. (2020, October 14). Measure 110 would make Oregon 1st state to decriminalize drug use. Retrieved November 8, 2020, from opb website: https://www.opb.org/article/2020/10/15/measure-110-oergon-politics-decriminalize-drugs/