As voters head to the polls today for the most consequential election of our lifetime, Oregon voters have even more at stake. A measure on their ballot could potentially decriminalize hard drugs. A tactic that’s been successful in countries like Portugal, decriminalization of hard drugs is effective but incredibly controversial. So what does the measure mean for Oregon’s future, as voters weigh the possibilities?

Portugal Blazed a Path for Drug Decriminalization

While unprecedented in the United States, one country has blazed a path forward for drug decriminalization. In 2000, Portugal decriminalized hard drugs in order to combat the growing drug epidemic. The result was a resounding success. 

Per a Time article discussing Portugal’s experience, “…In the 1990s, some 5,000 addicts roamed the streets of the hilly neighborhood, searching for their daily fix as dirty syringes piled up in the gutters.

Back then, Portugal was in the grip of heroin addiction. An estimated 1% of the population—bankers, students, socialites—were hooked on heroin and Portugal had the highest rate of HIV infection in the entire European Union. ‘It was carnage,’ recalls Américo Nave, a psychologist and President of Crescer, an outreach NGO focused on harm-reduction practices. As the government prepared to demolish Casal Ventoso in 2001, he was working with the addicts living in the neighborhood. ‘People had sores filled with maggots. Some lost their arms or legs due to overusing.’

Over the course of two decades, the government’s response had been one that Americans will recognize: it introduced increasingly harsh policies led by the criminal justice system, while conservative critics spoke out against drug use. By the late ’90s, about half the people in prison were there for drug-related reasons—creating a large addicted inmate population. Nothing was working. On the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. was doing the same: spending billions of dollars cracking down on drug users.

But in 2001, Portugal took a radical step. It became the first country in the world to decriminalize the consumption of all drugs.”

What Happened Once the Drugs Were Decriminalized?

Drug Addict using in the street

Although critics claimed people would be keeling over in the streets and drug use would rise, the exact opposite happened. Not only did the percentage of citizens in drug treatment increase by a staggering 60%, but drug overdose deaths dropped.

The approach is known as harm reduction, and it focuses on encouraging those suffering from addiction to seek help. Instead of spending millions of dollars locking drug users up over and over as those with drug charges have a high recidivism rate, harm reduction aims to keep them out of jail and in treatment programs. Opiate replacement therapy is successful when the person struggling with addiction doesn’t fear jail time from a slip-up.

People caught with less than a 10-day supply of their drug of choice aren’t penalized in Portugal, and are routed through a resource program that offers treatment and support. Safe houses are available for people to use drugs, where supervisors insure no one overdoses without treatment and they can’t be beaten or robbed. At the safe houses, addiction specialists are available for those looking for treatment. 

What Does Measure 110 Propose?

Backed by the Oregon Nurses Association, the Oregon chapter of the American College of Physicians, and the Oregon Academy of Family Physicians, Measure 110 would switch state resources from punitive to support. Per WSVN, small amounts of hard drugs would no longer result in jail time. “Instead of being arrested, going to trial and facing possible jail time, the users would have the option of paying $100 fines or attending new, free addiction recovery centers.

The centers would be funded by tax revenue from retail marijuana sales in the state that was the country’s first to decriminalize marijuana possession.”

Oregon was the first state to decriminalize and legalize the recreational use of marijuana, and it has seen significant tax revenue collected by the regulation of it’s use. 

Will it Pass?

Needles on ground

It’s hard to predict. Experts aren’t overly hopeful, but 2020’s election is bringing out new voters in unprecedented droves. Per WSVN, “The state’s voters in 2014 legalized recreational use and sale of marijuana. But it passed by fewer than 200,000 votes of the 1.5 million counted.

Given that margin, the more controversial hard drugs decriminalization measure is unlikely to pass, said Catherine Bolzendahl, director of Oregon State University’s School of Public Policy.

But Christopher McKnight Nichols, associate professor of history at Oregon State University, said it’s hard to gauge the outcome because voter participation seems headed for a historic high, with many first-time voters.

‘We don’t know as much about their preferences,’ Nichols said.

If Oregon’s voters reject Measure 110, ‘it may well pass next time, which has been the model for marijuana legalization, for instance, across the country,’ Nichols said.”

What Do Oregon Voters Need to Consider?

Health experts in the state have weighed heavily in favor of supporting Measure 110. Not only is a punitive approach to drug use ineffective at saving lives, as the United States’ War on Drugs has shown over the past 40 years, but it’s immensely costly. Jailing drug users over and over as opposed to paying for long-term treatment is a poor cost trade for tax dollars.

And if people fear jail or public censure for seeking treatment and admitting their addiction, they are less likely to seek help. The truth is, drug addiction isn’t going anywhere. The National Institutes of Health recognizes addiction as both a complex brain disorder and a mental illness. Since it’s impossible to punish or scare away mental illness, the only path forward is treatment. Whether or not Measure 110 passes, Oregonians will have to consider that they have the opportunity to make a change in how those needing help are reached.

Even if they’re dubious about the experts in their own state, all they have to do is compare the lack of success of the punitive War on Drugs with Portugal’s system. With that information in hand, voters can decide for themselves if they think it’s time to try something new. It’s certainly a decision that comes with consequences either way, and it’s up to each voter to weigh the possibilities.  

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