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Oregon is 1st state to decriminalize drugs like heroin, cocaine – here’s what that means

Posted at 4:21 PM, Nov 13, 2020

Oregon became the first state to decriminalize drugs like meth, cocaine and heroin this past election through Measure 110. The decision does not legalize these drugs, but supporters say it can help lead people away from jail and into treatment.

“We work primarily with folks who are injecting heroin and methamphetamines,” Haven Wheelock said.

She runs drug user health services at medical clinic Outside In, in Portland.

“It’s really about engaging people who are using substances and helping to give them tools to be happy, healthy and hopefully survive.”

One of the programs they provide is a syringe exchange service, to give users clean needles and materials to use.

“I have seen for decades how our current system of criminalizing drug use and addiction has really damaged lives and harmed people I care about,” she said.

That system is changing.

“Most of the clients I've had the opportunity to talk to about this really have this sense of relief, honestly,” Wheelock said. “The measure effectively decriminalizes personal use amounts of substances as well as provides funding for addiction and recovery support services across the state of Oregon.”

However, decriminalization is different from legalization.

“Decriminalization is basically making something so that it is no longer a criminal offense if you were to do it, it is still seen as a violation,” said Christopher Campbell, an Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Portland State University. “Full blown legalization is more like there is no violation whatsoever associated with it, within certain degrees.”

With decriminalization, instead of going to jail for having personal amounts of a drug on you, “you have a choice then of a $100 fine, or you take this chemical dependent screener assessment that determines if you are a good candidate for treatment,” Campbell explained.

This puts the focus on treatment, not jail.

“If you have fewer arrests based on possession, you're going to have fewer people in pre-trial detention,” Campbell said. “So you'll have fewer people going to prison. It’s kind of a chain reaction.”

In many states across the U.S., personal use possession of drugs like these is a felony offense. Back in 2017, the Oregon governor signed a bill making it a misdemeanor.

“I don't think it’s going to dramatically decrease the prison population. It might decrease it a little bit. I think the biggest one we’ve seen was felony to misdemeanor,” Campbell said.

The impacts of a drug-related felony charge is something Bobby Byrd has experienced his whole life.

“For the small possession of drugs,” Byrd explained. “That conviction ruined my life in a lot of ways. Kept me from getting jobs. Kept me from getting apartments.”

Byrd was arrested decades ago in the 1990s.

“I know this may not be able to help my past, but I don't want what happened to me to happen to anybody else in their future,” he said. “People don’t need punishment for their addiction, people need help for their addiction.”

That’s exactly why he’s been vocal in his backing of Measure 110. The measure is also paving a path for easier access to treatment.

“You won't have to have gotten in trouble in order to access these services,” Wheelock said.

“Oregon has kind of been primed for this. We’ve been very much on this progressive slate,” Campbell said.

From the first to decriminalize marijuana in 1973, to decriminalizing most other drugs, Oregon has paved the path to a lot of drug-related policy. Campbell said if it does what it intends, increase treatment and decrease use, other states may look to Oregon.

“I think there's a good chance that a lot of states will be interested in this,” he said.