There are a multitude of states where illegal drugs of any kind are not tolerated. In such locations, you can expect to face jail time, even for the possession of a small amount of cannabis.
However, one state has gone almost completely the other way. In November 2020, Oregon decriminalized all drugs. It is a radical move with many supporters and is not unprecedented. Of course, some staunch opponents believe it will lead to a major crime wave.
This article analyzes Oregon’s new stance and outlines what it means for its residents.
What Are the New Oregon Drug Laws?
The Drug Policy Alliance funded Measure 110, a ballot initiative with a difference. It has decriminalized the possession of small amounts of all illegal drugs. Approximately 58% of Oregon voters said ‘yes’ to Measure 110 during the November 2020 elections. The initiative means that you will no longer go to prison for possessing small amounts of drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin.
The new Oregon drugs law came into effect on February 1, 2021. From that date onward, the state will no longer impose criminal penalties for small amounts of so-called street drugs. Measure 110 ensures that this offense becomes a non-criminal violation akin to a traffic ticket.
Here is a table outlining the maximum limits of possession according to several popular, illegal drugs. If you are caught with more than the following amounts, you will face criminal charges.
0.99 grams or four pills
For instance, you will face criminal charges for possessing 12 grams of psilocybin, for example. Here is another table outlining the maximum possession limits for a misdemeanor charge. Possession of a higher amount becomes a felony charge.
Oregon Decriminalizing Drugs Doesn’t Mean They Are Legal
It is essential to realize that decriminalization and legalization are completely different concepts. While you won’t go to jail for carrying 0.5 grams of heroin, it is still an illegal act. You will receive a fine and a warning. The process of decriminalization replaces criminal penalties with civil ones.
If you go above the limits outlined in the first table, you will quickly understand the difference between the two terms. Get caught with 1.5 grams of heroin, for example, and you will face a misdemeanor charge. This could result in up to a year in prison.
It is essential to realize that decriminalization and legalization are completely different concepts.
What decriminalization achieves is a reduction in harsh Oregon drug penalties for minor offenses. Across the United States, countless people have had their lives ruined because they were found with a few grams of cannabis.
The War on Drugs has failed miserably. Most arrests are for low-level drug crimes. The kingpins and major operations are seldom exposed and punished. Those who run private prisons are the big winners. America has by far the largest percentage of people incarcerated in the world. An estimated 20% of prisoners are in jail for a drug offense.
There are also decades of research showing that strict criminal punishment for drug crimes offers minimal deterrent. It is an important step that could pave the way for more liberal drug policies across the United States.
What Oregon Drug Decriminalization Means for the State
There is a rational financial reason for Oregon’s decriminalization of drugs. The process of arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning people is expensive. Jeffrey Miron is a Harvard economist. He estimates that government drug prohibition spending was almost $48 billion per annum a few years ago. Oregon spent $375 million in 2016 alone.
Enforcing strict anti-drug laws is a complete waste of law enforcement’s time and resources. Decriminalization of drugs enables police to investigate serious matters such as robbery, sexual assault, and murder. Harsh drug laws also place unnecessary strain on the judicial system. As it happens, Oregon has plans for the money saved by decriminalizing all drugs.
The state hopes to create at least a dozen drug prevention and treatment centers. Revenue from recreational marijuana sales is slated for recovery and addiction services.
It is also good news for ethnic minorities, who are disproportionately targeted by the War on Drugs. A 2018 study by SAMSHA discovered that illegal drug use was roughly evenly spread amongst races. However, ethnic minorities, especially African-Americans, are far more likely to be searched, arrested, and jailed for drug-related offenses.
Will Oregon Decriminalizing Hard Drugs Lead to a Crime Increase?
Those who oppose Measure 110 claim that it will lead to an increase in crime. The notion of Oregon decriminalizing heroin, for instance, leads to hyperbole about how it will cause the downfall of society.
According to a defense attorney called James O’Rourke, reducing criminal penalties will endanger kids. He believes the new laws will negatively influence a child’s perception of the risks of using drugs.
One erroneous claim is that decriminalization and legalization make for easier access to drugs. The reverse is true in reality. Once again, decriminalization doesn’t mean you can buy and use illegal drugs without any issues. It just means you won’t go to jail for carrying a small amount for personal use.
As for legalization, fears that permitting cannabis use would result in an epidemic of weed users are unfounded. A study published in JAMA in July 2019 looked at the association of marijuana laws with teenage cannabis use. It found that there was a decrease in cannabis use in some states that allowed legal weed. One reason was that younger users found it harder to get cannabis in a regulated market.
Oregon Is Not a Global Trailblazer
Although Oregon has left American states behind, it is not the first place to ever decriminalize drugs. The European nation of Portugal took this step in July 2001. Called ‘The Drug Strategy,’ the plan was mainly designed to decrease the country’s rapid rise of HIV/AIDS cases. Portugal also hoped to reduce the level of illicit drug use.
It has enjoyed spectacular success in both instances. In 2000, before decriminalization, HIV infection rates were at an all-time high level of 104.2 cases per million. The rate fell to just 4.2 cases per million in 2015.
Although Oregon has left American states behind, it is not the first place to ever decriminalize drugs.
Portugal also has one of the lowest levels of illegal drug use in Europe. For instance, 2.1% of people aged 15-34 in the EU use cocaine. The rate is just 0.3% in Portugal. Rates of MDMA and amphetamine consumption are also far lower in Portugal than in most European nations.
Finally, the rate of overdose deaths in Portugal is one-fifth of the EU average. Even the EU rate is significantly below that of the United States.
Final Thoughts on Oregon Decriminalizing All Drugs
The suggestion that the new Oregon drug laws are a dangerous experiment fails to consider the available data. The idea that draconian anti-drug laws should persist is driven by emotion rather than reason. All evidence points towards the fact that current drug policy is wholly ineffective.
In contrast, research shows that decriminalizing drugs could have a positive effect on society. Certainly, this is the case in Portugal. The European country has lower drug overdose deaths and casual illegal drug usage. There is also no evidence that drug-related crime has increased.
The rest of the United States will doubtless watch on in interest to see what happens next in Oregon. Hopefully, the bold new drug laws will prove successful and instigate badly needed drug reform.