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Oregon Forced to Recriminalize Drugs After Disastrous Decriminalization Experiment

In late 2020, Oregon decriminalized small amounts of heroin and cocaine — despite a standing federal prohibition — making their possession no longer punishable by jail time.

While experts lauded the new measure at the time as a meaningful step towards dismantling the war on drugs and a way to stop users from landing in jail, the experiment, known as Measure 110, appears to have backfired in a cautionary tale about the difficulties of enacting effective drug policy.

Earlier this week, Oregon governor Tina Kotek signed a new measure into law that effectively recriminalized hard drugs in the state by restoring criminal penalties.

Overdose deaths rose in Portland, causing the city's mayor Ted Wheeler, who sat down with the New York Times for an interview this week, to advocate for reintroducing jail time for hard drug possession.

As a result, anybody caught with even small amounts of drugs, including fentanyl and meth, could face up to 180 days in jail, as the NYT reports, putting an end to a rare and ambitious effort to keep drug users out of jail.

The news highlights some glaring mistakes that were made in the implementation of the measure, which may have led to the plan backfiring, as well as the underlying societal issues that contributed to a surge in the number of people without housing, who are statistically more likely to struggle with substance abuse. The number of unhoused people in Portland rose by 65 percent between 2015 and 2023.

The decision also sheds light on the devastating fentanyl crisis, which has hit Portland hard. Drug abuse, especially of fentanyl, has risen considerably. As of April 1, Portland police have already seized more fentanyl this year than all of last year combined.

So what went wrong?

"I was cautiously optimistic," Wheeler told the NYT of Measure 110, which was supported by an overwhelming majority at the time. "I’ve been around enough to know that it’s always in the implementation."

Wheeler added that the "timing couldn't have been worse," arguing that treatment services weren't in place for the decriminalization. Instead, the state should've built up "its behavioral health services" first.

While addiction rates and overdose rates "skyrocketed," Wheeler argued that Measure 110 likely wasn't entirely at fault.

"I think, honestly, is the long-term decisions we had made as a state to not invest in behavioral health, to not invest in treatment services, came home to roost as all of these crises hit simultaneously during COVID," he told the NYT.

In short, Oregon's decriminalization experiment goes to show that removing criminal penalties is far from a one-size-fits-all solution.

Critics have argued that Oregon lawmakers failed to take a meaningful, multi-pronged approach, stopping short of making investments in affordable housing and drug treatment options.

"This Legislature did not pass real solutions," Sandy Chung, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, told the NYT last month, shortly after the bill to reimpose criminal penalties was passed by the State Legislature.

"This is about politics and political theater," she added.

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