In a November 2020 referendum, Oregon voters approved a reform that downgraded the punishment for possession of any and every drug to a civil citation. Today, the Oregonian reported that this experiment with hard-drug decriminalization has failed to deliver on one of its central promises: that treatment would take the place of criminalization. The Oregonian article, titled “Oregon’s drug decriminalization effort sends less than 1% of people to treatment,” reports:
Two years after Oregon residents voted to decriminalize hard drugs and dedicate hundreds of millions of dollars to treatment, few people have requested the services and the state has been slow to channel the funds.
When voters passed the state’s pioneering Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act in 2020, the emphasis was on treatment as much as on decriminalizing possession of personal-use amounts of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs.
But Oregon still has among the highest addiction rates in the country. Fatal overdoses have increased almost 20% over the previous year, with over a thousand dead. Over half of addiction treatment programs in the state lack capacity to meet demand because they don’t have enough staffing and funding, according to testimony before lawmakers. . . . Of 16,000 people who accessed services in the first year of decriminalization, only 0.85% entered treatment, the [Oregon Health Authority] said. A total of 60% received “harm reduction” like syringe exchanges and overdose medications. An additional 15% got help with housing needs and 12% obtained peer support.
The operating premise of the decriminalization effort was that governments should treat addiction as a disease rather than a crime. In a January New York Times guest essay lauding the Oregon experiment, titled “Treating Addiction as a Crime Doesn’t Work. What Oregon Is Doing Just Might,” drug-policy writer Maia Szalavitz argued:
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. . . . Criminalization supercharges addiction stigma, and stigma is one of the biggest obstacles to recovery. Stigma is such a major roadblock that most organizations working to combat addiction have large initiatives focused on addressing it.
“To reduce stigma and combat the addiction crisis, drug policy must be liberated from the idea that without criminal penalties, no one would ever quit drugs,” Szalavitz continued. “Because far from spurring recovery, arrest, incarceration and having a criminal record can exacerbate drug problems.”
Well, fine. I’m on the record as being skeptical, but the exceptional thing about the “laboratories of democracy” theory of federalism is that state governments can experiment with a variety of different approaches to public policy. When they go right, those experiments serve as a model that other states can emulate; when they go wrong, they don’t drag the rest of the country down with them. Judging by the standard set by the advocates of hard-drug decriminalization, Oregon’s most recent experiment has gone disastrously wrong.