Oregon is Right About Decriminalizing Drugs

The decriminalization of small amounts of drugs and the expansion of substance abuse treatment is credited with saving Portugal from a drug epidemic. In fact, prior to decriminalizing drugs and expanding substance abuse treatment Portugal had the highest rates of HIV infection in the European Union (EU) and one in every 100 people were addicted to heroine. Now Oregon is following Portugal’s example by decriminalizing all drugs. The question is, will this drug policy be as effective in Oregon as it was in Portugal?

A Reduction in Drug Use and Diseases

Due to Portugal’s drug reform policies, opioid overdose deaths fell, along with new cases of diseases associated with injection drug use, including hepatitis C and HIV. A fall in new cases of diseases related to injection drug use is likely a result of Portugal’s needle exchange program in addition to Portugal’s other drug reform policies.

An Increase in Substance Abuse Treatment

It’s important to note that the combination of the decriminalization of drugs and the expansion of substance abuse treatment is what likely led to the success in Portugal, not just the decriminalization of all drugs. Many articles that discuss Portugal’s drug policy tend to focus on the decriminalization aspect and not focus as much on the substance abuse treatment aspect. However, the substance abuse treatment aspect is the most important part.

In particular, what changed with Portugal’s drug reform policy was that when police caught people using or possessing drugs they confiscated their substances and referred them to a Dissuasion Commission instead of incarcerating the individual. The Dissuasion Commissions are comprised of one official from the legal field and two from the health or social service fields.

The Commission officials decide whether and to what extent a person is dependent on drugs and make a determination as to whether the individual should receive administrative sanctions, fines, or be sent to social work or group therapy. However, in cases where the abuse of drugs is not problematic the individual may not be given sanctions at all and cases are dropped after the individual is not found to be possessing drugs within six months.

Oregon’s Decriminalization Effort

So far the state of Oregon has been doing well with following Portugal’s example. During November 2020, Oregon became the first US state to decriminalize all drugs. Along with decriminalizing all drugs, Oregon has diverted some of the money previously used for drug enforcement to pay for around a dozen new drug prevention and treatment centers throughout the state. Oregon also has needle exchange programs to prevent the spread of HIV. However, needle exchange programs aren’t new in Oregon; they’ve been around for the past few years.

The factor that will decide how effective Oregon’s new reform policy is on addressing substance abuse is the implementation of substance abuse treatment programs. Decriminalization of drugs allows the possession of drugs to be treated as a civil offense instead of a criminal one which gives citizens that commit the offense more opportunity for treatment. Additionally, Oregon has already implemented needle exchange programs. The combination of all these policies should help to alleviate drug issues in Oregon.


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