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Legalizing Shrooms Is Cool — But Decriminalizing Hard Drugs Is Worth Celebrating More

When will the rest of the country follow Oregon’s lead in treating a public health crisis with something other than imprisonment?

With the passing of ballot measure 109, Oregon has become the first state to vote to legalize psilocybin mushrooms. The news of this, though, has overshadowed an even more significant win for the state on measure 110: The decriminalization of controlled substances, including heroin, cocaine and meth. 

Specifically, the measure will reclassify all personal non-commercial possession of controlled substances within drug schedules I-IV as Class E violations, resulting in a maximum $100 fine or completed health assessment. Previously, possession of drugs within these schedules were Class A misdemeanors, punishable by up to a year in prison. State funding that previously would have been spent on arrests and incarceration, as well as excess marijuana tax revenue, will now be redirected toward 24/7 addiction recovery centers and community resources. These resources will be available to anyone, regardless of whether they’ve been found with a substance. 

“[This program will offer] not just what we traditionally think of as treatment, but services that address the full range of people’s needs, whether that be more traditional treatment — obviously evidence-informed, culturally sensitive treatment — but also harm reduction, other health services, even housing and employment services,” says Matt Sutton, Director of Media Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance, the group that wrote measure 110. “There are a lot of underlying causes that can be driving people’s substance use, and we have to be able to address those as well as we can. That’s what sets this apart from other initiatives as well. It’s really groundbreaking.”

As Sutton explains, measure 110 was modeled after the 2001 decriminalization in Portugal. In terms of lives saved, the actions taken there have proven to be a success: Since decriminalizing possession of all drugs and the creation of harm-reduction and recovery programs, overdose deaths in Portugal have decreased by 80 percent. Prior to decriminalization, 52 percent of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses were from people who used drugs — today, only about six percent of new cases are drug users, and HIV/AIDS-related deaths among drug users have fallen, as well. 

In Oregon, there are 12.6 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 people. For comparison, Portugal’s drug overdose death rate is 5.2 per million. According to Sutton, Oregon has previously ranked among the lowest in terms of addiction resources compared to other states, and one out of ten people in Oregon struggle with some type of substance abuse. 

“People are really starting to see it more as a public health issue than something that should be criminalized,” he says. “We’ve had this failed War on Drugs for the last 50 years and what has it gotten us? Skyrocketing incarceration and an overdose crisis that’s taking the lives of 70,000 Americans per year. It’s past time for a new approach. That’s what this program does, it actually provides real services that can help people.”

This measure will also likely have a massive impact upon drug-arrest-related racial inequality. “The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission did a report and found that if this measure passed, it would result in a 95-percent reduction in racial disparities in drug arrests in the state,” says Sutton. “That alone is significant and reason to put all this effort into passing the measure.” 

While the exact effects of measure 110 remain to be seen, the win in Oregon likely means that other states could soon follow in similar efforts. “Everybody is incredibly invigorated after last night, and this definitely demonstrated that all drug decriminalization is indeed politically viable in the U.S.,” says Sutton. “There are already efforts underway in Washington, Vermont and California.” 

Further, the Drug Policy Alliance has already begun working on passing federal legislation. They have a House sponsor for this, though they cannot yet say who — Sutton states that a bill will likely be introduced by the end of this year, or in the early sessions of 2021. “We’d like to think this is such a radical idea, but on its face, this really isn’t that radical of an idea,” he says. “It’s public health, plain and simple. We’re treating a public health issue with a public health system, versus a criminal justice system that can’t help people.”