Oregon could become 1st US state to decriminalize hard drugs

Measure 110 is one of the most watched initiatives in Oregon because it would drastically change how the state’s justice system treats people caught with amounts for their personal use.

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.

It may sound like a radical concept even in one of the most progressive U.S. states — but countries including Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland have already decriminalized possession of small amounts of hard drugs, according to the United Nations.

Portugal’s 2000 decriminalization brought no surge in drug use. Drug deaths fell while the number of people treated for drug addiction in the country rose 20% from 2001 to 2008 and then stabilized, Portuguese officials have said.

The U.N. Chief Executives Board for Coordination, chaired by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, is also advocating a different approach.

In a 2019 report, the board announced its commitment to “promote alternatives to conviction and punishment in appropriate cases, including the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use.”

Doing so would also “address prison overcrowding and overincarceration by people accused of drug crimes,” said the board, which is made up of the leaders of all U.N. agencies, funds and other bodies.

Oregon’s measure is backed by the Oregon Nurses Association, the Oregon chapter of the American College of Physicians and the Oregon Academy of Family Physicians.

“Punishing people for drug use and addiction is costly and hasn’t worked. More drug treatment, not punishment, is a better approach,” the groups said in a statement.

Opponents include two dozen district attorneys who urged a no vote, saying the measure “recklessly decriminalizes possession of the most dangerous types of drugs (and) will lead to an increase in acceptability of dangerous drugs.”

Three other district attorneys back the measure, including the top prosecutor in Oregon’s most populous county, which includes Portland, the state’s largest city.

“Misguided drug laws have created deep disparities in the justice system,” said Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt. “Arresting people with addictions is a cruel punishment because it slaps them with a lifelong criminal record that can ruin lives.”

Jimmy Jones, executive director of Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action, a group that helps homeless people, said arresting people who are using but not dealing hard drugs makes life extremely difficult for them.

“Every time that this happens, not only does that individual enter the criminal justice system but it makes it very difficult for us, on the back end, to house any of these folks because a lot of landlords won’t touch people with recent criminal history,” Jones said. “They won’t touch people with possession charges.”

The measure would decriminalize possession of less than one gram of heroin or methamphetamine; two grams of cocaine; 12 grams of psilocybin mushrooms; 40 doses of LSD, oxycodone or methadone; and one gram or five pills of MDMA.

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