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Politics & Government

Oregon Poised To Become 1st State In The US To Decriminalize Drug Possession

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Oregon would be the first state in the nation to do away with criminal charges and jail time for personal drug possession. Starting next year, drug use cases would be handled in civil court. Individuals would be given a choice between a fine and completing a health assessment.

Oregonians appear ready to make their state the first in the United States to decriminalize the personal possession of illegal drugs, including cocaine, heroin, Oxycodone and methamphetamine.

Measure 110 was passing Tuesday in unofficial early returns.

The ballot measure would reclassify possession of small amounts of drugs as a civil violation, similar to a traffic offense. The penalty would be a $100 fine, which a person can avoid by agreeing to participate in a health assessment. Selling and manufacturing drugs will remain illegal.

The decriminalization provisions of the measure would take effect on Feb. 1.

The measure also would fund health assessments, addiction treatment, harm-reduction efforts and other services for people with addiction disorders. Money would be available for these costs through the reallocation of tens of millions of dollars generated by Oregon’s cannabis tax. The measure also is expected to generate savings in the criminal justice system because of fewer drug arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations. Those savings would be redirected into a new state fund for treatment and other services.

Measure 110 is the latest example of the state’s citizen initiative process being used by national advocates of drug legalization to advance their policy goals.

The New York-based advocacy organization Drug Policy Alliance wrote the measure and spent more than $4 million on the yes campaign. The group hoped to use victory in Oregon to convince advocates in other states that drug legalization is politically viable.

The measure’s opponents argued that Oregon was the wrong place to choose as a test case for a new approach to illicit drug use and addiction.

The state struggles with some of the highest rates of substance abuse in the nation and among the poorest rates of access to services, according to an analysis by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

The measure’s opponents included the Oregon District Attorney’s Association and two statewide groups that represent treatment providers and people in recovery: Oregon Recovers and The Oregon Council For Behavioral Health.

They plan to ask the Oregon Legislature to consider making revisions to the decriminalization policy in the upcoming session. One concern in particular for opponents is the absence of any language in Measure 110 specifying how the system of civil penalties would play out in cases involving juveniles caught possessing drugs.

Among countries that have decriminalized drug possession are Uruguay, Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting