aMERICA’s WAR on drugs has been a disaster. More than a million Americans have died of drug overdoses since the government began counting in 1999. No wonder a growing number of states are interested in something different. Nine of them are considering decriminalizing possession of a small amount of drugs. This paper has long advocated more liberal laws, but reform-minded states — in America and abroad — would do well, before proceeding, to consider the experience of Oregon, the only U.S. state to date to pass decriminalization. has entered. It has had a difficult start.
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Eliminating criminal penalties for possession of some drugs makes sense. It can reduce the number of prisons and the dangers of addiction. Portugal decriminalized possession of drugs for personal use in 2001. In subsequent years, overdose deaths and HIV infections fell, and public drug markets disappeared.
Oregon had hoped for similar success. In a 2020 vote, 58% of voters supported decriminalization. As a result, having a small amount of fentanyl, methamphetamine, heroin or LSD now warrants a penalty similar to a speeding ticket. In the two years since the new law came into effect, the number of drug arrests has indeed fallen. However, the number of overdose deaths in Oregon has risen sharply, well beyond the nationally recorded increase.
Under the old regime, charges for possession were a tool to get people into treatment because sentences could be dropped if offenders agreed to seek help. However, the thinking in Oregon was that the treatment would probably work better if it was voluntary. The citations for possession that replaced charges come with a fine of up to $100, which can be waived by a call to a health hotline. The hope was that offenders could then be sent to rehab. But less than 5% of the police actions actually led to that call.
Worse, even if people choose addiction treatment, they may not be able to get it. Recent analysis found that the state of Oregon has only half the addiction treatment it needs. The same vote that decriminalized property also increased funding for some recovery services, but the money started flowing long after the reform took effect. Even now, the additional funding will not close the gaping gap in services.
Learn before you jump
Oregon’s experiment may yet be a success, but the lessons are clear. Don’t rush at first. The Australian Capital Territory is also decriminalizing drug possession, but wisely it takes a year to prepare and train frontline responders. It is especially important to make sure treatment is available before proceeding. The “Field of Dreams” approach to getting addicts into treatment won’t work if you don’t provide enough places in clinics. And building it isn’t cheap.
Second, pressure is a necessary part of the policy mix. Many addicts would choose never to walk into a treatment center. British Columbia, in Canada, is undergoing its own decriminalization process and, like Oregon, has chosen not to enforce treatment. But with accidental overdoses of fentanyl being so common, waiting for addicts to hit rock bottom can all too easily prove deadly.
It is better to follow the kind of approach developed in Portugal, where people caught with drugs have to appear before deterrence boards and be directed to treatment. The process is labor intensive and that alone can discourage casual drug use. Italy, which has also decriminalized drug possession, can suspend the driver’s licenses of frequent offenders.
Drug epidemics have no quick fixes. But the scale of the crisis facing America today is so great that even small improvements are worth striving for. When done properly, decriminalization can help people come clean by sparing them the millstone of a criminal record and preventing many overdose deaths. That’s why it’s important to take the lessons from Oregon to heart. ■