Missteps in Oregon Decriminalization Illustrate Need for Additional Addiction Treatment Resources

Missteps in Oregon decriminalization laws illustrates the need for additional addiction treatment resources. Portions of the law intended to increase treatment services have largely failed.


The issues of drug decriminalization and legalization are some of the most hotly debated subjects in the U.S. While efforts toward reducing the punitive nature of how this country treats addicts certainly have their benefits, taking a laissez-faire attitude towards drug policy through wanton legalization would also create its own unique set of risks.

Oregon passed legislation in 2020 that effectively decriminalized several mind-altering substances. However, Oregon did not impose sufficient incentives or mandates for apprehended drug users to seek addiction treatment (the logical alternative to prison sentences when decriminalization is implemented). The result has been ongoing health problems with little change in drug use statistics in Oregon between 2020 and 2022. And sadly, drug overdose statistics have continued to go up since the ballot measure went into place.

Defining Decriminalization and Legalization

Drug decriminalization and drug legalization are not the same thing. These terms are defined as follows:

  • Legalization means that a once-banned drug is no longer prohibited by law, and that it is now legal to own, consume, transport, and purchase.

  • Decriminalization means that a once-banned drug is still prohibited by law but the legal system will no longer prosecute persons who are found in possession of certain amounts of the drug. Decriminalization seeks to remove some of the punitive nature of drug laws and to help alleviate the stigma associated with addiction. The ideal result is to increase access to treatment by requiring those caught with drugs to attend treatment or face criminal penalties for continued use.

News from Oregon

Oregonians are still using drugs despite public health efforts and state policies to reduce drug addiction. They’re not availing themselves of treatment services when cited for drug possession, and overdoses are still going up.

Police officer is checking a car

In 2020, Oregon voters approved a ballot measure that sought to decriminalize hard drugs, establish addiction recovery centers, and fund the treatment of addicts rather than their incarceration.1 Unfortunately, in the first year after the approach took effect (February 2021 to February 2022), only 1% of Oregonians who received citations for drug possession/use sought addiction treatment help via the state’s new addiction hotline.

Oregon’s decriminalization program is being closely watched since Oregon is the first state to decriminalize possession of personal-use amounts of heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, oxycodone, and other drugs. Oregon’s Ballot Measure 110 changed possession of hard drugs from a felony/misdemeanor charge to a “violation” punishable by a $100 fine. The fine can be waived if the person calls a hotline for a health assessment. The hotline is intended as the foot-in-the-door for the person seeking addiction help.

Unfortunately, of the roughly 2,000 citations given out for drug possession in Oregon between February 2021 and February 2022, only 92 people who received citations called the hotline. Of the 92, only 19 requested addiction treatment services. The majority of cited individuals paid the fine and did not call the hotline or seek treatment services.

Meanwhile, drug overdoses in Oregon have continued to go up, with the state reporting 473 opioid overdoses in 2021, more deaths than the state experienced in 2020. The increasing availability of fentanyl likely played a significant role in Oregon’s uptick in drug deaths, but the state’s inability to persuade addicts to seek treatment is doubtless also a factor.2

Some critics have said that the Oregon program did not go far enough to pressure addicts found in possession of drugs to seek treatment. Certainly waiving a $100 fine is not much of an incentive. Some have indicated that Oregon’s new laws should have been modeled from other decriminalization approaches such as the one those implemented in Portugal. In that country, addicts apprehended for the possession of drugs are met with a variety of pressure points to compel them to seek treatment, from prohibiting drug users from visiting certain venues or from traveling abroad, to the seizure of personal property, from community work and having to periodically report to health services, to fines and other government-led interventions.

On a positive note, the new Oregon laws have led to more available funding for addiction treatment facilities. Tax income from marijuana sales and funds that have been redirected away from incarcerating addicts have combined to create new opportunities for treatment. The only challenge that remains is ensuring addicts make good use of those resources.

Addiction Treatment is the Answer

Helping an addict

Addicts and their families have to help addicts get into treatment and off drugs. Drug decriminalization can be a stepping stone towards recognizing that drug abuse is a health crisis and not a criminal act. Further, decriminalization can set the stage for placing treatment at the forefront of how the nation addresses drug addiction. And while decriminalization is a move in the right direction (as it takes America away from its heavy-handed criminalization of addiction), decriminalization by itself is not a solution to addiction. Treatment is.


  1. Selsky, Andrew. “Mixed Results for Oregon’s Pioneering Drug Decriminalization.” AP NEWS. Associated Press, April 3, 2022. ↩︎

  2. Svrakic, Dragan M, Patrick J Lustman, Ashok Mallya, Taylor Andrea Lynn, Rhonda Finney, and Neda M Svrakic. “Legalization, Decriminalization & Medicinal Use of Cannabis: A Scientific and Public Health Perspective.” Missouri medicine. Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association, 2012. ↩︎