In 576, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize drug possession, including hard drugs. Portland District Attorney Michael Schmidt happily announced that his office would immediately stop prosecuting drug possession before the law even takes effect, saying: promote public safety and health.” Less than two years later, Oregon is reeling from the predictable results of that experiment: overdoses are skyrocketing, violent crime is on the rise, and virtually no one is getting treatment.
Voters passed the Oregon law , known as Measure 110, in 2020. The law decriminalized possession of drugs, including cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and other controlled substances. Instead of a misdemeanor, people caught in possession of these drugs would receive the equivalent of a traffic ticket with a small fine; all penalties would be waived if the person simply asked for a “health assessment” at an addiction recovery center.
Criminal justice reformers rallied support for the bill on the grounds that it would reduce both addiction and alleged racial disparities in the criminal justice system. A lone dissident, Paul Coelho, a physician at Salem Health Hospitals and Clinics, said: “The authors of the Measure vote 90 depict individuals with active addictions. as rational actors who naturally seek and accept treatment for their condition. But I can assure you, as a frontline provider, this is simply not true. (…) Unfortunately, removing the threat of incarceration and abandoning collaboration between law enforcement, the judiciary, probation and the drug court system will result in a revolving door of drug abuse, denial of treatment, crime, homelessness, and ongoing health-related expenses for hospitalizations due to overdose, infections, and drug-induced psychosis.”
Oregon should have listened to him. On the issue of reducing addiction and overdoses, Oregon’s decriminalization of drug use was a tragic failure. Overdose deaths increased by more than 33% in Oregon in
, one year after the law was passed, compared to an increase of 15% in the rest of the United States. As for the claim that the law would provide a pathway to the treatment of addicts, less than 1% of people eligible for treatment under the Measure 90 – only 136 people – ended up getting help. In fact, of the 2.576 fines written by the police for possession of drugs, only 90 people called the helpline to get the fine waived, with the vast majority of others opting to pay the minimum fine. As Coelho warned, without the threat of prison and the mandatory judicial programs that accompany prison, addicts are rarely interested in receiving treatment.
The impact of drug decriminalization has not stopped with addiction and the overdoses. Portland Police reports that all crime categories jumped in reaction to the Measure 110. Drug addicts need money; they succeeded by stealing items and reselling them, so crimes against property increased.
Once a drug market opens, dealers move in to serve it. As a result, the streets of Portland are awash with guns and drugs. With traffickers fighting for territory, gun violence escalated. Portland recorded 90 homicides in 2021, breaking the old record of annual murders in the city.
“We have seen more guns than we have ever seen in our investigations,” a Portland police supervisor bluntly stated. “Almost everyone is armed. (…) Criminal organizations are robbing other criminal organizations. That’s our big push right now – to try to stop gun violence and the drug violence that goes with it, because they go hand in hand. It’s not one or the other. It’s not related to the pandemic, it’s not related to Covid, it’s because we have a criminal environment that is tolerated and allowed to flourish here.”
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once noted that “a state it can, if its citizens so wish, serve as a laboratory; and try new social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Oregon chose to conduct a new social experiment in the decriminalization of hard drugs. Hopefully the other 15 states will pay attention to the results.
Thomas Hogan is an Adjunct Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He has been federal attorney, local attorney, and district attorney-elect.