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.
More people are incarcerated than ever before, and more people are addicted than ever before.
In fact, Oregon ranks second in the nation for substance abuse disorder and 50th in access to treatment. We must treat this crisis with the urgency it requires and do what works: make addiction recovery services available to more people in the most low-barrier, equitable way possible. In doing so, more people will get help and we will further destigmatize addiction and recovery. More people will feel safe to come forward and ask for help.
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.
Measure 110 has reduced drug arrests
Already the law has averted thousands of arrests. Measure 110 has had a significant effect in reducing drug arrests and convictions, even when you account for the drop in arrests during the pandemic. Drug arrests overall are down over 80 percent and arrests for simple drug possession are way down too.
There have been no increases in crime in Oregon since Measure 110 has passed.
Many crime indicators in Oregon have remained unchanged since before Measure 110 went into effect, or even gone down:
- In Portland, assault rates in the city have remained relatively constant since 2018 and sex offenses appear to be trending down.
- In Washington County, violent crime has remained unchanged in recent years while property crime appears to be declining.
- In Clackamas County, some categories of property crime have increased while violent crime has remained unchanged.
- In Salem, crime rates have held steady since before the pandemic. Assaults and property crimes such as burglaries and robberies have remained constant in recent years.
- Crime rates have not changed significantly in Eugene and in more rural parts of the state like Josephine and Wallowa counties.
Some fluctuation in crime rates from year to year is typical, and it’s notoriously difficult to draw conclusions or divine long-term trends from small variations in recent data.
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.