Decriminalization is under attack in Oregon. Here's why it's undeserved
Oregon voters approved a ballot referendum that decriminalized drugs in 2020. Now, with overdoses surging, top officials are looking to reverse course.
The alleged failures of decriminalization in Oregon are making national headlines this week as former proponents of the measure work to reverse course.
The fentanyl-driven opioid crisis has put cities such as Portland in a maelstrom. Decriminalization is ineffective and, in fact, making the issue worse, they say. Gov. Tina Kotek even declared a 90-day state of emergency on Tuesday in response to a “drug emergency in Portland,” The New York Times reported.
“Our country and our state have never seen a drug this deadly addictive, and all are grappling with how to respond,” Kotek said in a statement.
At face value, the reports make it seem like the streets of Portland have been set ablaze by crazed fentanyl addicts as families cower in fear behind closed doors.
In reality, it’s misguided nonsense that signifies a step backward in ending the war on drugs that has raged on for more than 50 years.
Oregon decriminalized drugs such as methamphetamine and fentanyl through a ballot referendum in 2020 to fight over-incarceration and aid those struggling with drug abuse by steering them toward treatment.
Like every other state in the U.S., fatal overdoses surged during the same period, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But suppose Oregon’s decision to decriminalize drugs is to blame for the surge rather than being a part of a nationwide trend. If that’s the case, then why is it seeing significantly less overdose deaths than many other states?
The same CDC data that shows a wave of fatal overdoses also demonstrates that, with 26.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2021, Oregon ranks 34th in the country for its death rate, according to the most recent available data.
It’s doing better than Maryland, where 42.8 deaths per 100,000 people occurred.
And it’s a safe haven compared to West Virginia, a heavily Republican state that wouldn’t dare decriminalize drugs, which reported 90.6 overdose deaths per 100,000 people — leading all other states by a long shot.
The nonsense behind the recent attacks on decriminalization was pointed out on Wednesday by the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit that has spearheaded decriminalization efforts nationwide.
Brian Pacheco, spokesperson for the organization, cited a study last year published in the medical journal JAMA finding no evidence that decriminalization in Oregon led to an increase in fatal overdoses.
“The conversation on public suffering, homelessness, and the overdose crisis is personal to us,” Pachecho said in a statement. “We want to save and improve lives. And it will take hard work to repair over fifty years of failed drug war policies of punishment and disinvestment. Media and politician talking points are dominated by the false promise that the solution is simple — that criminalization will be some silver bullet to the suffering we see in our communities. But criminalization didn’t work before. And it will not work now.”
There is no evidence that finds decriminalization to be ineffective. And, aside from Oregon, the U.S. has a limited scope in which to evaluate its efficacy.
That’s why the most-cited model is Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs in 2021. In that case, though, the move proved successful, with drug-related problems decreasing as the country pushed addicts away from jail cells and into treatment.
Portugal, however, has not been rocked by fentanyl to the extent the U.S. has, The New York Times also reported this week.
The problem seems more likely to lie in the availability of fentanyl in the U.S. and other factors.
Overdose-related deaths spiked in 2020 as fentanyl became a bigger player in the U.S., the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration noted in a report that same year. But it also coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic.
And what changed during that period in addition to an increase in the fentanyl supply?
In addition, housing costs increased and access to social services decreased. As COVID-related aid expired, homelessness increased by 12%.
As evidenced by a 2021 article by Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a professor at Harvard Medical School, social determinants of health can be major catalysts for addiction.
Grinspoon cited a 2019 study that found opioid overdoses are more concentrated in “economically disadvantaged zip codes,” which were described as areas with higher levels of poverty and lower levels of education.
The study also cites a familiar factor that comes into play: criminalization, which perpetuates the cycle of addiction.
“Other studies have found poverty to be a risk factor for opioid overdoses, unemployment to be a risk factor for fatal heroin overdoses, and a low education level to be a risk factor for prescription overdose, and for overdose mortality,” Grinspoon continued. “Homelessness has been shown to be associated with overdoses as well, particularly among veterans. Terrible outcomes are associated with incarceration, particularly the period just after release from incarceration, when deaths from overdoses skyrocket. Systemic racism contributes to all of these issues.”
It’s clear that drug abuse and fatal overdoses are multifaceted issues that cannot be attributed to one cause. And studies have shown repeatedly that decriminalization is not one of them.
The real issue seems to be that, instead of tackling systemic issues that negatively impact Americans’ quality of life, officials would rather look for a scapegoat than allocate resources to improve the lives of American citizens.
In practice, though, that’s not solving anything. And it sure as hell doesn’t help those in the throes of addiction.