Decriminalisation under attack: US media goes after Oregon's drug policy model

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Decriminalisation under attack: US media goes after Oregon's drug policy model

16 September 2023
André Gomes

As a new attempt to control drug-related harms in a non-punitive fashion, the Oregon decriminalisation model has had an unsteady start, struggling with an incredibly toxic drug supply and a short implementation period. This has not been helped by what intense targeting of opinion pieces, perspectives and columns across all major American news outlets, criticising the model’s implementation.

As a reminder, the Oregonian system decriminalised the possession of all drugs in November 2020. Drug possession is now only punishable with a $100 fine, which is removed if a person attends a health screening through a recovery hotline. This system also diverts money previously used for law enforcement into drug prevention and treatment centres (which the police were not happy about), as well as using recreational cannabis tax revenue to fund treatment and addiction services.

Contextually, Oregon is also surprisingly average in its overdose rates. Oregon ranks 33rd in the US for drug overdoses (out of 50 states), just above the average. The states ranking above it all have more prohibitive and punitive models of drug control than what Oregon is attempting. The amount of attention that such an average state is receiving feels quite bizarre and warrants investigation.

While there is a need to critique new drug control systems and ensure they are working properly, the amount of critical attention that Oregon has received has been exceptionally high. Over a dozen articles from the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Economist and the Globe and Mail have attacked Oregon’s model, either due to failing to reduce drug-related deaths, or by highlighting how other decriminalisation systems – namely Portugal – are struggling, and that Oregon will somehow have the same fate. Thematically, these articles have some similarities, superficially engaging with Oregon’s decriminalisation system while failing to recognise the structural faults that led to the North American epidemic of drug dependence and overdose in the first place.

In this piece, I examine what are the most salient critiques of decriminalisation found in all the pieces analysed (full list at the end of the article), and what are the proposed solutions.

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