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Editorial: Oregon voted to end the war on drugs. California should watch and learn

A man's covered body lies on a Highland Park sidewalk. In 2017, 918 homeless people died in L.A. County.
A body lies covered on a Highland Park sidewalk. In 2017, 918 homeless people died in L.A. County. Drugs and alcohol were a factor in at least 25% of the deaths in the last five years, an analysis found.
(Los Angeles Times)

Oregon made history on election day when its voters overwhelmingly backed Measure 110, an initiative to decriminalize the possession of hard drugs, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, for personal use. The decision makes Oregon the first state to exit the nation’s long war on drugs and to treat substance abuse as a public health issue instead of a crime.

It should be apparent by now that the war on drugs failed. It led to militarization of police departments and mass incarceration, whose costs have been astronomical in both financial and human terms. The war was disproportionately waged on Black and Latino communities, exacerbating racial inequities and hampering opportunities.

Across the country, there’s been a movement among conservatives and liberals alike to deescalate the war on drugs by reducing penalties for drug use and diverting users to treatment instead of jail. In a sign of change, Congress and the Trump administration chose to frame the opioid crisis as a public health emergency rather than a criminal justice one — perhaps because the crisis hit rural and suburban white communities first.

With the passage of Measure 110, Oregon will go much further. It’s the first state to eliminate simple drug possession as a crime and to adopt the policy that drug treatment should be voluntary, not mandated by the criminal justice system. A newer idea, it’s controversial among addiction experts who argue over whether the threat of criminal penalties is necessary for some addicts to seek help.

It’s one thing to rewrite the law on drug possession. It’s a far more difficult job to rethink drug treatment and to build a public health system capable of supporting long-term drug recovery. Oregon is about to embark on an important experiment. But it’s precisely that — an experiment — and California and other states would be wise to watch and learn from what goes right, or wrong, in Oregon.

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Starting next year, any person caught with small amount of hard drugs will be cited for a civil violation, equivalent to a traffic ticket. The penalty is a $100 fine, which will be waived if the person agrees to complete a free health assessment with an addiction counselor. The counselor can suggest treatment options or make referrals for other healthcare, housing or employment services. There’s no arrest, no criminal record and no requirement to enroll in a treatment program.

The idea behind Measure 110 is that it’s cruel, costly and inefficient to treat drug users as criminals. It can be as expensive to arrest and convict someone for misdemeanor drug possession as it is to provide treatment. Having a criminal record can make it harder for a recovering user to get housing, a job and a return to productive life.

This is a radical departure from the zero-tolerance policies on drug use the U.S. embraced from the 1970s until recently, when states started pursuing marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform. And it’s important to note that simply decriminalizing drug possession and individual use in Oregon will not resolve the other ills associated with the illegal drugs, namely the crime that some users engage in to pay for drugs and the gangs and violence involved in their production, distribution and sales.

California has gone further than many states in decriminalizing drug offenses. Voters here passed Proposition 36 in 2000, which allowed low-level drug offenders to choose treatment over jail. Proposition 47 in 2014 reduced penalties for simple drug possession. Yet even in California, the criminal justice system and the substance abuse treatment system are still deeply entwined.

To develop an entirely new model, Measure 110’s proponents looked to Portugal, which decriminalized drug use in 2001 as part of a national strategy to treat drug addiction as a public health issue. At the time, Portugal’s experiment was so shocking that the United Nations warned of penalties and some countries in the European Union threatened to close their borders. In the following years, drug overdose deaths and HIV infections dropped dramatically. Today, Portugal has one of the lowest rates of drug use in Europe.

Portugal — like Oregon — did not legalize hard drugs. Drug use is still forbidden, and it’s a crime to buy and sell drugs. When police in Portugal find someone with a small amount of drugs, officers issue a summons to appear before a regional Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, which falls under the Ministry of Health. The commission can offer treatment and services to help the person stop using drugs. Treatment isn’t mandatory, although the commission can impose a fine or require community service if treatment is refused.

But here’s a critical difference between Portugal and present-day Oregon: Portugal invested a lot of money to develop a comprehensive healthcare approach to drug use. The nation offers free, readily available treatment and addiction services to anyone who wants them. That can include counseling, detox, residential recovery centers or methadone and other medications. The nation has also invested in harm-reduction programs, including needle exchanges and safe injection sites.

Oregon has among the highest rates of drug use in the country and its treatment services are among the least accessible. Measure 110 will help funding by redirecting marijuana tax revenue to pay for “addiction and recovery centers,” which would offer referrals to healthcare services, as Portugal’s dissuasion commission does, and make grants to existing treatment providers. But there’s real concern that, unless the Legislature ramps up funding, Oregon still won’t have enough recovery centers or community health providers who can treat addiction.

Law enforcement groups and some recovery experts opposed Measure 110, arguing that users in the throes of addiction are unable to make a rational decision to seek help. It’s often the arrest or the threat of jail, these critics argue, that pushes addicts into treatment and ultimately sobriety.

Other addiction experts disagree, contending that the U.S. is overly reliant on coercion as a route to drug treatment. If Oregon can develop a Portugal-like model that helps people manage their drug use safely until they’re ready to quit, coercion and threats may not be needed.

Voters in Oregon deserve credit for taking a leap of faith. But now the hard work begins. Oregon could become a proving ground for a more effective approach to a stubborn and destructive societal problem. After decades of the failed war on drugs, it’s worth trying something new.


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