Stateline has this effective piece, headlined “Oregon’s Drug Decriminalization May Spread, Despite Unclear Results,” providing an update of sorts on Oregon’s experience one year after a ballot initiative enacted statewide drug decriminalization. I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:
Progressive lawmakers and civil rights groups want more states to follow Oregon’s recent example and drop criminal penalties for carrying small amounts of heroin, cocaine or other drugs, and to spend more money on addiction recovery services. They say substance use disorder should be treated as a disease, rather than as a crime.
Democratic lawmakers in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont all proposed decriminalization bills this year. Advocacy groups hope to get a decriminalization measure on the ballot in Washington in 2022 and in California in 2024, said Matt Sutton, director of public relations for the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit. The Drug Policy Alliance helped fund the ballot initiative that resulted in Oregon’s new law, which took effect in February.
But Oregon’s experience shows that it’s easier to eliminate criminal penalties than to ramp up behavioral health services and get more people to use them. In fact, critics of decriminalization say such policies could decrease access to treatment, because fewer low-level offenders will be pushed into court-ordered programs….
The law will use marijuana tax revenue — plus any criminal justice money saved through decriminalization — to fund organizations that help people seek and maintain sobriety. Those services could include peer support groups and transitional housing programs. Such organizations will get about $300 million over the next two years [which is estimated to be] about five times the amount Oregon is currently spending on services that aren’t provided through Medicaid, the public health insurance program for people who have low incomes or disabilities. About $30 million already has been disbursed….
Drug arrests and convictions have plummeted in Oregon since February. The ballot measure made possessing small amounts of drugs — such as less than a gram of heroin, or less than two grams of cocaine — a civil citation punishable by a $100 fine rather than a crime. It also downgraded felony charges to misdemeanors for possessing slightly larger amounts.
The measure established a hotline that people whom police ticket for possession can call to undergo a health assessment. If they complete the assessment, they can get their citations waived, even without further treatment or other services. The law also requires the state to establish addiction recovery centers to connect people who use drugs with treatment or other assistance, such as housing or overdose prevention education.
Before decriminalization, in 2019, Oregon law enforcement officers made more than 6,700 arrests and courts issued more than 4,000 convictions for drug possession in cases where possession was the most serious potential charge, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission…. Between February and August this year, law enforcement made 1,800 arrests for such possession crimes and courts issued 364 convictions. Defendants most likely were arrested for carrying large amounts of drugs or for drug dealing offenses, said Ken Sanchagrin, executive director of the commission.
Decriminalization doesn’t appear to be leading to a rise in drug-related crime, such as property crime. Property crimes in the state actually decreased this year, according to data provided by the criminal justice commission and the judicial department.
It’s less clear whether decriminalization has led more people to seek help for substance use disorders. Defendants failed to show up in court to make their case against about half of 1,300 citations issued through September for possession of small amounts of drugs, according to the Oregon Judicial Department. In only seven cases did defendants submit a health assessment to get their fines waived. To critics of the new law, the seldom-used hotline proves that decriminalization isn’t working….
Policymakers nationwide likely will be watching Oregon for policy insights, said Beau Kilmer, director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center at the RAND Corporation, a California-based research group. But the Oregon law is so new — and is being implemented at such an unusual time, during a global pandemic — that it’s hard to tell whether it’s working as intended, he said. “I suspect voters in other states will be considering this before we have hard evidence on it.”