Oregon Drug Decriminalization 2020: Will This Make Addiction Problems Worse?

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The 2020 election was surprising in many ways. The presidential election was extraordinarily close in some states and high-stakes, but many important amendments and propositions were put to the people for their consideration in November. One of them was Oregon’s Measure 110, also called the Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative. The measure passed with more than a 58 percent majority, but it’s still drawn some controversy. Though it’s intended to help in the fight against drug addiction, what are the implications of drug decriminalization?

What Is Decriminalization?

Decriminalization is a term that’s used to mean the lessening of penalties for certain illegal actions. When it comes to drug decriminalization, it means that the possession of drugs for personal use will no longer be punished as a crime. Oregon’s new measure isn’t the first time a state in the U.S. has decriminalized an illegal substance. Marijuana has already been decriminalized in more than a dozen states where it’s not fully legalized. However, Oregon is the first state in which all drugs have been decriminalized. That means relatively safe drugs like marijuana and potentially harmful drugs like methamphetamine and heroin.

Does that mean all drugs are legal in Oregon? No. Decriminalization is not the same thing as legalization. It’s still a felony to sell drugs or to possess drugs in large enough amounts to sell. If you’re caught with a small amount of a substance that you intend for personal use, it’s still illegal. However, instead of jail time and a criminal record, it will probably get you a fine. Instead of being treated as similar to a robbery, personal drug possession will be treated more like running a red light.

What Is Measure 110?

Measure 110 was recently passed legislation to decriminalize all drugs in Oregon, moving personal drug possession to be classified as a non-criminal offense. The measure would make personal drug possession a Class E misdemeanor, which means it would come with a maximum fine of up to $100. Before the measure passed, personal drug possession was classified as a Class A misdemeanor in Oregon. That means violators could face up to a year in prison and a $6,250 fine.

In addition to decriminalization, the measure also proposed the establishment of a new drug treatment and recovery program funded by the state’s marijuana tax and prison savings.

What Are the Advantages of Measure 110?

The idea behind Measure 110 and drug decriminalization, in general, is that removing prison as a response to drug use will keep people out of a cycle of prison and addiction. Proponents of the measure argue that jail time and criminal records are bad for people with substance use disorder. They also point out that drug laws often disproportionately target people of low socioeconomic groups and minorities.

Decriminalization could also lower the drain on the financial drain that drug possession charges impose on the criminal justice system. The money saved will ideally be put toward the fight against addiction and overdose.

Opponents of the measure may be worried that it could declaw the criminal justice system in its efforts to control drug violations. Without prison as a deterrent, won’t more people feel free to use potentially dangerous drugs?

Isn’t Prison a Deterrent?

Prison is an important part of the criminal justice system. Its primary function is to exact justice on people who have violated the law and incurred penalties. It also incapacitates criminals by removing them from society, where they can’t violate the rights of other people.

However, there are a few other functions that people claim prison should perform. One is reformation. Ideally, criminals could learn to reform themselves in prison so that they can be positive contributing members of society when they’re released. The other is deterrence. Just the idea of prison should keep people from committing crimes.

These last two functions are controversial. Critics often say prison does more harm than good in both of those tasks. The problem with prison as a deterrent is that criminals don’t believe they’ll be caught.

According to the National Institute of Justice, sending someone to prison after being convicted of a crime isn’t an effective deterrent to crime, and increasing the severity of punishments is also ineffective. Instead, increasing the perception that a criminal is likely to be caught is a deterrent to crime. Even relatively light penalties may be an effective deterrent if a person believes they are likely to be caught.

Deterrence may be particularly ineffective when it comes to drug use. Addiction is a chronic disease that can cause powerful compulsions to use drugs despite serious consequences. Addiction may cause someone to commit drug-related crimes regardless of the risks.

Prison Can Make Substance Use Problems Worse

The United States has a high prison population compared to other nations. Those high numbers may be connected to drug addiction and substance use problems. It’s difficult to know exactly how many people in the prison system have substance use disorder, but the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) suggests that it could be as high as 65 percent. Other people (an addiction 20 percent of the prison population) don’t have an SUD but were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they committed their crimes.

With so many prisoners struggling with drug use problems, is prison a help or hindrance in combating addiction? Treating incarcerated people for drug use problems is more effective in combating addiction than incarceration alone. However, prison time for people with drug-related offenses may be disruptive to a person’s life and create barriers to success later in life. Prison populations have grown with the increase of more severe drug laws.

What Is the War On Drugs?

Many people have called Measure 110 the end of the War on Drugs in Oregon. The War on Drugs refers to a strategy in the fight against the illegal drug trade and addiction that was popularized in the 1980s and 1990s. The idea was to create harsh penalties for people that violated drug laws as a way to discourage people from using drugs in the first place. With rising prison populations and addiction rates, the war on drugs is widely regarded as a failure in its goal to reduce drug misuse.

Will Drug Decriminalization Worsen Addiction Problems?

It’s difficult to predict how legislation will affect a large number of people. But it’s unlikely that Measure 110 will significantly worsen addiction problems in the state, especially in the long-term.

When marijuana is legalized in a new jurisdiction, the use of the drug often increases among adults but not adolescents. The increase usually plateaus after some time. However, the legalization of recreational use is very different from decriminalization. Marijuana legalization opens up avenues for sellers to increase availability to people.

But selling illicit substances is still illegal, so availability shouldn’t increase in the same way. Plus, the criminal justice system will still be able to go after drug traffickers and dealers with the same tools. However, people with substance use disorders may be given a chance to explore treatment options with less of a legal threat.

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