Pros and Cons of Drug Decriminalization


Have you heard that Oregon passed a drug decriminalization law? Oregon is the first state in the country to prioritize drug treatment over punishment. Oregon is motivated to save lives. An average of one or two Oregonians die of a drug overdose every day. Overdose deaths in Oregon were up 70% this spring compared to the same time last year.

If you are found with small amounts of illicit drugs, you will receive a civil violation, like a traffic ticket. For example, you will receive a violation if you have less than 2 grams of methamphetamine and cocaine, or one gram of heroin, or less than 40 units of LSD and oxycodone. If you are caught with large amounts of illicit drugs, the consequence is a misdemeanor charge and a $100 fine. Additionally, violators can avoid that fine by agreeing to a health assessment.

Not everything goes. The decriminalization of drugs does not mean that there is a free-for-all with drug use. Law enforcement will continue to prevent the sale of drugs.

Supporters hope that people who struggle with addiction will have an incentive to get help. And more help will be available. As part of the law, the Oregon Health Authority is providing new resources and treatment options, funded in part by the state’s cannabis tax revenue.

Treatment vs. Prison

Not everyone is pleased with decriminalization. A minority of people may find jail beneficial. Some people believe that prison stops those who don’t want to stop themselves. Some prisons have excellent substance abuse programs for inmates who are motivated for recovery.

However, prison poses a special risk of death for people who undergo withdrawal while incarcerated, or shortly upon their release. Legal charges and a history of incarceration follow one through life, causing severe consequences, such as unemployment and difficulty accessing housing.

There is a shortage of behavioral health and substance abuse treatment in the United States. The right treatment, for the right person, at the right time, and which is affordable and accessible, may not be available in one’s community. Moreover, we could all learn from Oregon’s new law. The new law will utilize and expand existing treatment providers in the state. It also increases recovery services, housing, employment, drug education, outreach, and access to naloxone (overdose prevention tool).

Portugal decriminalized substance possession in 2001. According to Foundations Recovery Network, lessons learned including the following:

  • Substance abuse and addiction rates have been cut in half since decriminalization
  • Addiction treatment and rehabilitation is less expensive than incarceration
  • Individuals with substance abuse problems are much more likely to find recovery in rehab than in jail
  • People completing treatment can become productive members of society much more easily than convicted felons
  • Violence related to drug trafficking is greatly reduced
  • Courts are freed up for other important work
  • The rebellious, countercultural essence of drug use is changed when society sees it as a disease and not a crime


Foundations Recovery Network also finds:

  • Individuals with a biological predisposition toward addiction may be more likely to experiment with drugs if they do not fear legal prosecution.
  • The existing treatment resources are not nearly large enough to handle the influx of millions of new addicts from the legal system.
  • Decriminalization may lead to a push for legalization in some situations.
  • If decriminalization leads to an increased supply of drugs on the streets of the US, prices will fall and millions of new people may be tempted to experiment.

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that decriminalization is the answer to substance abuse recovery. People use substances for many reasons. But criminalizing a medical disease most often makes it worse, not better, and has negative lifelong consequences. As our eyes are on Oregon, we will likely be faced with a similar decision in our states. Be prepared to consider the pros and cons of drug decriminalization.

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