We can’t arrest our way out of this public health crisis.
Decriminalizing and decoupling drug use from the criminal justice system are among the most effective, immediate things we can do to stop the ongoing harms of the war on drugs.
Criminalization creates barriers that can last a lifetime
The very presence of a drug arrest or charge can create barriers that last a lifetime.
A criminal record for even a misdemeanor drug charge can sometimes be an automatic barrier to getting a job, accessing housing, qualifying for a credit card or student loan, and can also automatically disqualify people from getting a professional license for their trade, like trucking or barbering.
Incarceration worsens health outcomes, causes more trauma, and increases the risk of dying from an overdose.
Prisons have become “exposure points” for extreme violence that undermines rehabilitation, reentry, and mental and physical health. And, the effects of these earlier traumas carry over into people’s incarceration, making the pursuit of long term recovery an even more difficult road to navigate.
- Incarceration is linked with increased mortality from overdose.
- In the first two weeks after their release from prison, individuals are almost 13 times more likely to die than the general population.
- From 2001 to 2018, the number of people who have died of drug or alcohol intoxication in state prisons increased by more than 600%.
The criminalization of drug possession contributes to stigma and deters people from seeking voluntary health services, including substance use disorder (SUD) treatment. This stigma also affects provision of health services, as people with substance use needs report that service providers treat them worse because they use drugs.
Property crime is most often associated with addiction; these crimes have gone down moderately.
The most damaging way that Oregon has been an outlier is that we have been at the bottom of the nation in providing services proven to help people suffering from addiction, while also having the top rate of addiction out of any state. That is what Measure 110 is changing, and we need to keep going.
To be clear, Measure 110 only decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs. All other drug crimes — like manufacturing, dealing, intent to sell, driving under the influence, etc. — all remain illegal. Keeping people with substance use issues out of the criminal justice system makes it easier for them to access critical services.
The bottom line: Getting arrested should not be a prerequisite for getting help.
Coercing people into treatment undermines their dignity and autonomy, and evidence shows that coerced treatment is largely ineffective. In order to work, addiction recovery services must be evidence-based, voluntary, and accessible.
That’s exactly what Measure 110 does. That’s why decriminalization has been so effective in other countries when it comes to reducing stigma, connecting people with critical services, and ultimately preventing more people we love from dying from drug overdose.
Accessible Services Matter
Measure 110 makes care more accessible to more people by removing barriers to and conditions for care. The Oregon Health Authority reports that in only six months, Measure 110 funding enabled over 16,000 more people to receive care.