Oregon became the first US state to decriminalise the possession of all drugs on the 3rd of November 2020.
Measure 110, a ballot initiative funded by the Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit advocacy group, passed with more than 58% of the vote. Possessing heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs for personal use is no longer a criminal offence in Oregon.
These drugs are still against the law, as is selling them. But possession is now a civil – not criminal – violation that may result in a fine or court-ordered therapy, not jail. Marijuana, which Oregon legalised in 2014, remains fully legal.
There are three main arguments for this major drug policy reform.
1. Drug prohibition has failed
The ostensible rationale for harshly punishing drug users is to deter drug use. But decades of research have found the deterrent effect of strict criminal punishment to be small, if it exists at all. This is especially true among young people, who account for the majority of drug users.
The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate and among the highest rates of illegal drug use. Roughly 1 in 5 incarcerated people in the United States is serving time for a drug offence.
Because criminalising drugs does not really prevent drug use, decriminalising does not really increase it. Portugal, which decriminalised the personal possession of all drugs in 2001 in response to high illicit drug use, has much lower rates of drug use than the European average.
2. Decriminalisation puts money to better use
Arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning people for drug-related crimes is expensive.
The Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that total government drug prohibition-related expenditures were US$47.8 billion nationally in 2016. Oregon spent about $375 million on drug prohibition in that year.
Oregon will now divert some of the money previously used on drug enforcement to pay for a dozen new drug prevention and treatment centres statewide, which has been found to be a significantly more cost-effective strategy. Some tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales, which exceeded $100 million in 2019, will also go to addiction and recovery services.
3. The drug war targets people of colour
Another aim of decriminalisation is to mitigate the significant racial and ethnic disparities associated with drug enforcement.
Illegal drug use is roughly comparable across race in the US. But people of colour are significantly more likely to be searched, arrested and imprisoned for a drug-related offence. Drug crimes can incur long prison sentences.