By Russell Brown
Since the first of February this year, anyone in the US state of Oregon caught possessing or using a personal quantity of any controlled drug – including heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine – has been officially not a criminal – or, rather, not liable for criminal prosecution. Instead, they will have the choice of paying a $100 fine or completing a health assessment at an approved addiction recovery centre.
The state government reported late last year, that Oregon had suffered a 40% increase in drug overdose deaths in 2020, in line with with national trends during the Covid pandemic. This dramatic shift from a criminal justice approach for drug users to one centred around health (a move the American Public Health Association called for as far back as 2013, came not from the state's elected politicians, but from the voters themselves, who last September approved Measure 110 by a 16-point margin. The measure also stipulated that funding for the introduction of new healthcare resources, including a a 24/7 telephone addiction recovery centre, would come from Oregon's burgeoning tax revenue from its legalised cannabis market.
The funding component was, says Portland drug reform activist and public radio broadcaster Doug McVay, a political winner". But he also credits an increasingly strong reform movement: "People who use drugs have become vocal and politically active. We've become visible."
McVay says that although Oregon has long led the way on drug policy reform – its needle exchange was one of the first in the US – "conventional wisdom has always been that even talking about decriminalising drugs other than marijuana, let alone legalising and regulating them, is too radical. What Oregon has done is prove that bit of conventional wisdom wrong. Oregon has set an example for the rest of the nation, which becomes apparent when you look at the other states that are now considering broad drug decriminalisation. Politicians in those states need to be bold."