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Why it’s a big deal that carrying drugs will no longer get you arrested in Oregon

So let’s say you’re wandering around Portland with a little something in your pocket and you’re stopped by police. Now they can’t arrest you for it.

Why it’s a big deal that carrying drugs will no longer get you arrested in Oregon
[Photo: Erik Mclean/Pexels]
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Amid vaccine news and Biden administration headlines, you may have missed a big development: Oregon just became the first state to decriminalize the possession of drugs. This is music to the ears of anyone who has ever rendezvoused with a controlled substance or crossed their fingers that a passing cop would keep walking.

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On Monday, a new ballot measure went into effect that disallows police from arresting someone due to possession of “personal-use amounts” of drugs like oxycodone, LSD, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and ecstasy.

So let’s say you’re wandering around Portland with a little something in your pocket and you are stopped by police. Under the new law, the ensuing experience would be like receiving a parking ticket: You’d politely try to talk your way out of it, fail, receive a civil citation, and be fined $100—though the fine could be waived if you agree to undergo a health assessment. No criminal record materializes.

The new policy is designed to prioritize health by opening doorways to addiction counseling and treatment, not jail cells. The policy also includes a wide system of addiction recovery centers, which will be funded by taxes on the state’s burgeoning marijuana industry.

Before this year, Oregon convicted nearly 4,000 people per year of criminal possession of controlled substances (misdemeanor and felony). Aside from clogging up the judicial system with tens of thousands of hours of court dates, there were many problems: People of color made up a disproportionately high percent of those convicted, and people with past drug convictions commonly had difficulty finding work or housing many years after the conviction. Drug criminalization was also indirectly costly to the state. A 10-year study recently found that Oregon hospitalization costs for needle injection infections rose from $16 million in 2008 to almost $151 million in 2018.

Will Oregon become a home base of choice for drug users? Critics of the ballot measure claimed just that. However, proponents point out that the law mimics Portugal’s wildly successful decriminalization policies, which are now 20 years old (though, admittedly, Portugal’s healthcare and judicial systems are quite different from Oregon’s). All eyes are now on Oregon’s drug data, which will be watched closely in the coming months by progressive legislators nationwide.