On July 1st, 2020, the Oregon Secretary of State announced that the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act was approved as a ballot measure for the November election. This is a big deal! That’s over 75,000 registered voters who were willing to put their names down in favor of this initiative. Initiative Petition 2020-044 (IP44) would “remove criminal penalties for personal, non-commercial possession of drugs listed as Schedule I, II, III, or IV by the federal Controlled Substances Act.” Instead, simple possession would be considered a Class E violation, with a maximum fine of $100 or a health assessment at a center for addiction recovery.
Great news: we did it! In November 2020, Oregonians voted overwhelmingly in favor of IP44 and it has now been passed into law, decriminalizing personal possession of small amounts of drugs and expanding access to addiction treatment and health services. And it couldn’t come at a better time.
Involvement in the criminal justice system has many collateral consequences that can damage people’s lives for years to come—even after they have recovered from the addiction that put them there in the first place. Having been arrested for minor drug offenses can give people trouble finding a job, make them ineligible for certain types of loans, reduce their housing security, and cause many other disadvantages. No one gets addicted to drugs on purpose, so why should a single mistake devastate the rest of their lives? Our time and our money would be much better spent investing in treatment programs that can help liberate people from their addiction and live healthy, normal lives without drugs.
Right now, almost 10% of Oregonians are addicted to drugs, in one form or another. Before this law was passed, simple possession carried penalties of up to a year in prison and a $6,250 fine, so the people who needed help the most often didn’t reach out. One of the problems of addiction is that people begin to believe they can’t manage their lives properly without taking their drug of choice. Once they recognize that they may have a problem, they feel powerless to do anything about it because the cost of exposure is not worth the risk. Who has $6k to put on the line when the doctor steps out into the hall, possibly to call the cops and have you arrested? Who has a year to spend deprived of their natural human rights if their therapist decides to rat them out?
IP44 was the first ballot initiative in Oregon’s history to include an analysis of its potential impact on racial justice. When the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission submitted their report, they found that felony and misdemeanor drug possession convictions should go down by 91% after decriminalization, with a 95% drop in racial disparities for arrests. These racial disparities were discovered in all levels of the criminal justice process including police stops, bookings, bail, sentencing, and countless others.
Addiction is insidious. It makes you live your life dose to dose, always planning around when you can use your drug next, and it has a long-lasting impact on mental, physical, and social well-being. Decriminalization of possession would allow us to treat the symptoms, heal the patient, and address the systemic issues that lead to addiction in the first place. Maybe this is the beginning of a new chapter in Oregon’s journey to helping people with drug problems get rehabilitated!