By Sophie Lovering
Sophie Lovering is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) and minoring in American Sign Language and Deaf Studies.
This November, the state of Oregon took the historical step of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of hard drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin . Measure 110, which passed with 55.8% of the vote, does not impact the possession of larger amounts of these drugs, which could still result in a misdemeanor charge . Decriminalization was not the only matter up for a vote; Measure 110 also expands access to “addiction assistance and other health services” .
The passage of Measure 110 demonstrates the public’s growing resistance to the American war on drugs. This war began in 1971 when President Richard Nixon increased sentencing and enforcement actions for low-level drug offenses . The war on drugs categorized substance abuse as a criminal justice issue in the minds of many Americans, and public opinion turned away from healthcare as a solution. This trend appears to be changing, however. As of late 2020, twenty-six states have decriminalized marijuana for recreational use . Several researchers have determined the psychological benefits of drugs such as marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms .
Decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of hard drugs is a critical first step in treating substance abuse issues as the health issues they are. In 2018, there were about 1.6 million arrests for drug possession alone . This not only points to an issue with our system of incarceration, but also creates significant fear of seeking help for addiction. By decriminalizing hard drugs, Oregon has made it possible for individuals to avoid unnecessary incarceration and seek help, should they choose not to finance or cannot pay smaller fines for drug penalties .
Some argue that this measure will encourage drug use, as there will be fewer legal risks associated with the endeavor . According to the Drug Policy Alliance, however, decriminalization of drugs simply reduces stigmas, making treatment more available for those who need it . Criminalization suggests that drug abuse is a social wrong; with available treatment options, people will face fewer legal and social barriers to seeking help. Additionally, this measure “removes one of the most common justifications for law enforcement to harass, arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and deport people” .
There remains the question of what will happen for people previously or currently incarcerated for the possession of small amounts of hard drugs. According to the Addiction Center, Black Americans are “much more likely to be penalized and more harshly than white counterparts for drug possession” . Although Oregon’s new policy will potentially nullify racial stereotypes related to drug possession, past arrests and convictions have already done their harm; people who have experienced incarceration have not only lost time, but also faced post-incarceration struggles, such as finding employment and maintaining interpersonal relationships.
Oregon has taken a monumental step toward treating substance abuse issues as a healthcare issue instead of a criminal justice issue. Although there remains work to be done, this step is unprecedented and demonstrates an important shift in the minds of policy makers and voters. The next question to consider is which states will follow suit, and at what levels.
 Murray, Krystina. “Oregon’s Takes New Measure For Decriminalization.” Addiction Center. November 13, 2020. https://www.addictioncenter.com/news/2020/11/oregon-
 Kim, Allen. “Oregon becomes the first state to decriminalize small amounts of heroin and other street drugs.” CNN. November 9, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/09/politics/oregon-
 Pearl, Betsy. “Ending the War on Drugs: By the Numbers.” Center for American Progress. June 27, 2018. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/criminal-justice /reports/2018/06/27/452819/ending-war-drugs-numbers/.
 Davies, Jag. “4 Reasons Why The U.S. Needs to Decriminalize Drugs - And Why We're Closer Than You Think.” Drug Policy Alliance. July 9, 2017. https://www.drugpolicy.org/blog/
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.