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The Oregon Decriminalization Experiment


When I told my students in Rhode Island that Oregon had decriminalized all drugs, they were basically shocked at how such a state could do that. It wasn’t like it was all a “wow that place is paradise” kind of response either. It was just not something they had ever really thought possible. I suspect a lot of people have that feeling when they hear about this. But this is one of the most interesting experiments in the nation and one that a lot of people are going to watch very closely, hoping we can move past the war on drugs and into a more rational, sane, and humane set of policy choices over drugs.

Morgan Godvin arrived at the Multnomah County Inverness jail in Oregon in June 2013. She had volunteered to be locked up during a drug-court appearance for felony heroin possession. Like many Americans, she believed that incarceration would help her recover. But when she requested her prescribed addiction medication, the nurse “just laughed,” she said. Ms. Godvin was denied the gold standard treatment for opioid use disorder and was left to kick cold turkey.

Almost 10 years later, after having served four years for various drug-related convictions, Ms. Godvin is putting her painful experience to use. She’s been in recovery since 2015 and now sits on a state council helping to oversee Oregon’s sweeping decriminalization of drug possession, which passed as a ballot measure by a 58 percent majority vote in 2020. The idea is to have the people most harmed by the war on drugs — like those with addiction and people of color — help lead a peaceful resolution.

Today, people like Ms. Godvin who are caught in Oregon with personal-use amounts of heroin, methamphetamine or other drugs receive the equivalent of a traffic ticket, which carries a $100 fine. The fee can be waived by undergoing a health screening in which treatment may be recommended but not required. Selling or carrying quantities beyond those allowed for personal use can still result in prison time.

By decriminalizing personal-use drug possession, Oregon has become the first state to acknowledge that it is impossible to treat addiction as a disease and a crime simultaneously. This kind of model is urgently needed in the United States, where street fentanyl is the leading cause of death among people ages 18 to 45, and where sending people to jail for using drugs has failed to prevent the worst addiction and overdose crisis in American history.

Given that the current criminalization of drugs leads to absolutely nothing positive, I really hope my home state can set a new standard of compassionate treatment outside of prison.

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