Oregon Repeals Drug Decriminalization Law Too Soon

The Oregon Legislature voted to repeal the state’s three-year-old law decriminalizing drug possession for personal use. This decision came in the wake of a surge in fatal overdoses and public drug use, which prompted lawmakers to adopt new tough-on-drugs policies. However, public health advocates who were behind the original decriminalization law argue that the repeal is premature and that Oregon is giving up too quickly. 

They point to Portugal as an example of the success of decriminalization, where the country saw a 75 percent drop in drug deaths since adopting a similar strategy in 2001. Portugal’s approach to decriminalization was not an overnight success but took time to yield results. In the late 1990s, Portugal was faced with sky-high overdose rates, leading the parliament to decriminalize drugs in 2000. The country then refocused its response to the opioid crisis as a public health crisis rather than a crime crisis starting in 2001.

João Goulão, the official who has overseen Portugal’s drug treatment system, expressed his concern about Oregon’s decision, stating that consistency and time are crucial when tackling complex issues such as the opioid crisis. He emphasized that expecting dramatic changes overnight is unrealistic.

The decision to reimpose criminal sentences for drug possession in Oregon was driven by the recent surge in fatal overdoses and public drug use. The COVID-19 pandemic also played a role, as it led to a nationwide spike in addiction, with the arrival of deadly fentanyl in the Pacific Northwest. Additionally, the state’s housing problem, exacerbated by the pandemic, resulted in more individuals living on the streets, some of whom turned to drug use in public spaces.

While the repeal of the decriminalization law in Oregon marks a setback for the state’s approach to drug policy, the debate surrounding the effectiveness of decriminalization versus tough-on-drugs policies continues. The outcome of this decision will undoubtedly have implications for future drug policy discussions in the United States.