Oregon leads the way in decriminalizing hard drugs

By ANDREW SELSKY

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — In a first in the nation, Oregon has rejected charging drug users with criminal offenses, with voters passing a ballot measure that decriminalizes possession of heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, oxycodone and other hard drugs.

“Today’s victory is a landmark declaration that the time has come to stop criminalizing people for drug use,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which was behind the measure. “Measure 110 is arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date,”

The measure completely changes how Oregon’s justice system treats those who are found with personal-use amounts of the hard drugs.

Instead of going to trial and facing possible jail time, a person would have the option of paying a $100 fine or attending new “addiction recovery centers” funded by millions of dollars of tax revenue from Oregon’s legalized, regulated marijuana industry.

The passage of the measure makes Oregon, which in 1973 became the first state to decriminalize marijuana possession, a pioneer in America in trying the same with hard drugs. The measure takes effect 30 days after Tuesday’s election, but the punishment changes don’t take effect until Feb. 1. Addiction recovery centers must be available by Oct. 1.

It may sound like a radical concept, but the initiative’s backers said making criminals out of drug users — locking them up and burdening them with criminal records that made it difficult to find housing and jobs — was not working.

One in 11 Oregonians is addicted to drugs, and nearly two people die every day from overdoses in the state, the Oregon Nurses Association, the Oregon Chapter American College of Physicians and the Oregon Academy of Family Physicians had said in support of the measure.

“We urgently need a change to save families and save lives,” they wrote.

About 3,700 fewer Oregonians per year will be convicted of felony or misdemeanor possession of controlled substances now that the measure has passed, according to estimates by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

The measure will also likely lead to significant reductions in racial and ethnic disparities in both convictions and arrests, the commission, which is an official state agency, said.

While this approach is new in the United States, several 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.

“This is such a big step in moving to a health-based approach instead of criminal punishment, and we’re devoting significant new resources to help Oregonians who need it,” said Janie Gullickson, co-chief petitioner of Measure 110.

The measure was being approved by 59% of roughly 2 million votes counted so far, according to the secretary of state’s office.

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