“It is important to keep in mind that Oregon’s Measure 110 did nothing to address the supply of illegal drugs, which remain just as iffy and potentially deadly as they were before the initiative was approved. Decriminalization was limited to drug users, and it was based on the premise that people should not be arrested merely for consuming forbidden intoxicants. This distinction between drug users and drug suppliers is similar to the policy enacted during Prohibition, when bootleggers were treated as criminals but drinkers were not.
Measure 110 changed low-level drug possession from a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum fine of $6,250, to a Class E violation, punishable by a $100 fine. Drug users who receive citations can avoid the fine by agreeing to undergo a “health assessment” that is supposed to “prioritize the self-identified needs of the client.” That assessment might result in a treatment referral, but participation is voluntary.
Despite the limited nature of Oregon’s reform, which was not designed to reduce the hazards posed by the highly variable and unpredictable composition of black-market drugs, Stephens thinks the fact that drug-related deaths continued to rise in Oregon shows that decriminalization has failed. “In 2019 there were 280 unintentional opioid overdose deaths in Oregon,” he writes. “In 2021 there were 745.”
Stephens neglects to mention that drug-related deaths rose nationwide during that period, from about 71,000 in 2019 to more than 107,000 in 2021. The number of deaths involving opioids rose from about 50,000 to about 81,000—a 62 percent increase.
To be sure, the increase in Oregon that Stephens notes was much larger. But how does it compare to trends in other jurisdictions that did not decriminalize drug use?
Between 2019 and 2021, Oregon’s age-adjusted opioid overdose death rate rose from 7.6 to 18.1 per 100,000 residents. California saw a similar increase: from 7.9 to 17.8. In Washington, the rate likewise nearly doubled, from 10.5 to 20.5. And even in 2021, Oregon’s rate was lower than the national rate (24.7) and much lower than the rates in states such as Connecticut (38.3), Delaware (48.1), Kentucky (44.8), Maine (42.4), Maryland (38.5), Tennessee (45.5), Vermont (37.4), and West Virginia (77.2). On its face, this does not look like evidence that decriminalization is responsible for Oregon’s continuing rise in opioid-related deaths.*
While Measure 110 does not seem to have caused an increase in drug-related deaths, it manifestly did not prevent that increase.”
“a heavy drug user who steals to support his habit is not immune from criminal penalties. It also means the government can justifiably regulate what drug users do in public, where their actions might offend, incommode, or alarm people who have an equal right to use sidewalks, parks, and other taxpayer-funded facilities. Although Stephens implies otherwise, eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession does not require tolerating public drug use, defecation, or blowjobs.”