November’s election brought sweeping changes throughout much of the country. Voters approved measures to legalize recreational marijuana in four states. Medical marijuana was approved in two others. And Oregon became the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of “hard” drugs. The ballot measure passed by a wide margin – 58.5 percent.
The legal effect
Beginning February 1st, drug possession (in small amounts) will no longer be a criminal offense in Oregon. Violations will instead be akin to traffic tickets. The penalty will be either a small fine ($100) or a chemical health screening.
This change applies to small quantities for personal use of:
The ballot measure also reduced the penalties for possession of larger quantities of these drugs, making them misdemeanors rather than felonies. Trafficking and manufacture remain serious offenses.
The policy considerations
Oregon’s ballot measure is in line with the growing recognition that drug use is a chemical and public health issue, not a moral failing. Punishing drug use with hefty fines and jail time does nothing to deter the problem. Those who get convicted for possession charges are the street-level users who are often vulnerable and powerless in their addiction. And the costs involved with investigating, prosecuting and imprisoning drug users are substantial.
Decriminalization also alleviates the disparate treatment of people of color in the justice system. The War on Drugs penalizes a disproportionate number of Blacks and Latinos. Removing the criminal penalties helps equalize that disparity.
Will others follow?
Although Oregon is the first state to take this step, several European countries have decriminalized drugs. Portugal is one such success story. There, deaths from drug use and HIV rates have plummeted.
The Drug Policy Alliance – a national advocacy organization that helped frame Oregon’s ballot measure – is anticipating a “cascade” of similar legislation across the country. Yet, with drug possession (including marijuana) still a serious crime at the federal level, it’s by no means a sure thing.