Oregon Reverses Drug Decriminalization Amid Overdose Crisis

In a policy shift, Oregon has decriminalized the possession of small amounts of certain drugs, ending a decriminalization experiment backed by voters four years ago. This move comes as the state currently faces a major overdose crisis.

Democratic Governor Tina Kotek signed the legislation on Monday, making the possession of drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison. The new law, which will take effect on September 1, also enables police to confiscate these drugs and crack down on their use in public spaces.

In 2020, Oregon voters backed Measure 110, which decriminalized the possession of small amounts of certain drugs. This made Oregon the first state to decriminalize minor drug possession. However, since the implementation of this measure, the state has witnessed a surge in homelessness, homicides, and overdose deaths.

However, since then, Oregon has seen a significant increase in homelessness, homicides, and overdose deaths. In 2020, unintentional opioid overdose deaths were recorded at 472, but this figure rose to at least 628 in 2023. In 2022, Portland set a new record for murders with 101, breaking the previous year’s record of 92.

In response to the escalating crisis, Kotek declared a fentanyl state of emergency in the city earlier this year. “Our country and our statue have never seen a drug this deadly and addictive, and all are grappling with how to respond,” she said.

The new law will allow local law enforcement to decide whether to offer violators the opportunity to pursue treatment before sending them into jail. Previously, the approach was more focused on punishment than rehabilitation.

In addition to the recriminalization bill, Kotek also signed Senate Bill 5204 on Monday. This bill allocated $211 million to resources for behavioral health and education programs, including substance abuse treatment and prevention education.

In a letter to legislative leaders, the governor wrote, “Success of this policy framework hinges on the ability of implementing partners to commit to deep coordination at all levels.”

Kotek also urged the Department of Corrections to guarantee a “consistent approach for supervision when an individual is released” from custody and to “exhaust non-jail opportunities for misdemeanor sanctions.”

Jeff Helfrich, the Republican Leader of the Oregon House, expressed his support for the governor’s decision, stating it was an essential move in tackling the state’s persistent drug crisis.

“Republicans stood united and compelled Democrats to do what Oregonians demanded: recriminalize drugs,” Helfrich stated.