When cannabis became legal in Oregon in 2015, there were those who opposed legalization that asked if this meant “we should just legalize all drugs.” While the idea of doing so certainly led to some consideration as to what that might look like— including yours truly who imagined an alternate reality where cocaine was legalized – last week organizers of an Oregon ballot measure hit a milestone which may actually bring such a thing closer to fruition.
The “Drug Treatment and Recovery Act “takes a unique approach to drug use, and the consequences imposed upon those who partake of drugs—all drugs. The Drug Policy Action organization and a number of other drug policy reform groups are backing the measure, and according to local organizers, it looks all but certain to qualify for the ballot. They’ve gathered more than 10,000 additional signatures beyond what is needed.
How would it work? Per Marijuana Moment:
This act would provide a two-fold solution: funding treatment through existing marijuana tax revenue, and creating an incentive for people to access treatment instead of burdening them with a criminal record,” said (chief petitioner Janie Gullickson). “… low-level possession of currently illicit drugs would be considered a civil infraction punishable by a maximum $100 fine and no jail time. The fine could be waived if the individual completes a health assessment at a substance misuse recovery center.
A licensed health professional would conduct the screening. Reform advocates have stressed that the measure’s primary goal is to treat addiction like a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice problem. It would expand services focusing on evidence-based treatment, provide housing support for people with substance use disorders and emphasize a harm-reduction approach to overdose prevention and drug education.
The article points out that this isn’t an entirely new idea, and was actually put into place nearly 20 years ago. Portugal (the country, not the Man) implemented a program which views addiction as a medical health issue, and not a criminal one.
As the New York Times notes, since the program began, the number of Portuguese using heroin has plummeted from 100,000 to 25,000. With that reduction in usage comes an even more important reduction—deaths. As the Times writes:
The number of Portuguese dying from overdoses plunged more than 85 percent before rising a bit in the aftermath of the European economic crisis of recent years. Even so, Portugal’s drug mortality rate is the lowest in Western Europe — one-tenth the rate of Britain or Denmark — and about one-fiftieth the latest number for the U.S. It’s not a miracle or perfect solution. But if the U.S. could achieve Portugal’s death rate from drugs, we would save one life every 10 minutes. We would save almost as many lives as are now lost to guns and car accidents combined.
The health benefits go beyond simply reducing fatal overdoses. HIV infections related to IV drug use plummeted from 50 percent in 2000 to 5 percent in 2015. Impressive numbers, especially when you factor in Portugal having held the dubious and unwanted title of “Highest Rate of Drug Related AIDS in the EU” in 1999.
The measure wouldn’t legalize drugs, so “PCP Pop Up Dispensaries” would not be a thing, and dealers would still face criminal charges.
Much as when cannabis was on the table for legalization, expect opposition from law enforcement agencies, and those who see such an initiative as capitulating to drug users moral failings. The inevitable cries of “What about the children? Won’t someone please think about the children?” will arise.
If the opioid crisis, which has killed tens of thousands in the US, has taught us anything, providing widespread access to options for treatment should be front and center. Yet as the campaign notes, Oregon’s ranking in drug addiction treatment services is nearly dead last. Jailing those using drugs hasn’t solved the problem, so perhaps it’s time to try something other than the criminalization of addictions.