Progressive lawmakers and civil rights groups want more states to follow Oregon’s recent example and drop criminal penalties for carrying small amounts of heroin, cocaine or other drugs, and to spend more money on addiction recovery services. They say substance use disorder should be treated as a disease, rather than as a crime.
Democratic lawmakers in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont all proposed decriminalization bills this year. Advocacy groups hope to get a decriminalization measure on the ballot in Washington in 2022 and in California in 2024, said Matt Sutton, director of public relations for the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit. The Drug Policy Alliance helped fund the ballot initiative that resulted in Oregon’s new law, which took effect in February.
But Oregon’s experience shows that it’s easier to eliminate criminal penalties than to ramp up behavioral health services and get more people to use them. In fact, critics of decriminalization say such policies could decrease access to treatment, because fewer low-level offenders will be pushed into court-ordered programs.
“Criminalizing a health condition is never the way to go,” said Reginald Richardson, executive director of the Oregon’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission, an independent state government agency. “So that piece of [Oregon’s law] was beautifully constructed. But it also created a problem, because there are some people—the stick of jail allowed them to get into recovery. And now we don’t have that anymore.”