Drug Decriminalization in Oregon Officially Begins Today

Press Release February 1, 2021
Media Contact

Matt Sutton (202) 556-3291
[email protected]

Portland, OR – Today, Oregon became the first state in the United States to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all drugs and greatly increase access to treatment, recovery, harm reduction and other services. This is a result of a successful ballot initiative spearheaded by Drug Policy Action—the advocacy arm of Drug Policy Alliance–in partnership with long-standing Oregon allies, that was approved by voters in the November 2020 election by a 17-point margin. The change represents a substantial shift in America’s half-century long war on drugs that has led to the criminalization and punishment of millions and has disproportionately harmed communities of color.

“Today, the first domino of our cruel and inhumane war on drugs has fallen—setting off what we expect to be a cascade of other efforts centering health over criminalization,” said Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “For the first time in at least half a century, one place in the United States – Oregon – will show us that we can give people help without punishing them. This law is meant to protect people against persecution, harassment and criminalization at the hands of the state for using drugs and instead given access to the supports they need. Over the last year, we have been painfully reminded of the harms that come from drug war policing and the absence of necessary health services and other support systems in our communities. Today, Oregon shows us a better, more just world is possible.”

While some jurisdictions, like Multnomah County, decided to move forward with decriminalization ahead of February 1, today the change in the law officially takes effect on a statewide basis. People who possess drugs for their personal use will no longer face arrest and the burden of a criminal record, but will instead be connected with support services—such as evidence-informed and culturally-responsive treatment, peer support and recovery services, harm reduction and other health services, and even housing and job assistance—should they need and want them. Services will be funded through excess marijuana tax revenue (over $45 million) and savings from no longer arresting, incarcerating, and prosecuting people for drug possession. Based on current projections, the excess marijuana tax revenue alone should result in over $100 million in funding for services in the first year and up to $129 million by 2027.

DPA has been actively working in partnership with the Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance—a diverse coalition of more than 70 community-based partners across the state who supported the effort—to ensure that the intent and will of the voters are protected and implemented fully withoutelay, centering the needs of communities most harmed by the war on drugs.

According to a report by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission released by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, the new law will result in a 95% decrease in racial disparities in drug arrests. The actual impact on disparities could be even more dramatic, the report notes, stating “other disparities can exist at different stages of the criminal justice process, including inequities in police stops, jail bookings, bail, pretrial detention, prosecutorial decisions, and others.” 

The fundamental elements of the new law are based on successful models used in other parts of the United States and around the world–including Portugal and Switzerland, but tailored specifically to meet the needs of Oregonians. DPA worked in consultation with many Oregonians involved in public health, treatment, recovery, equity, economics, criminal justice, civil liberties, and more to craft the measure. 

The initiative was supported by a broad spectrum of local, state and national groups, including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, AFSCME of Oregon, NAACP of Portland/Eugene Springfield, Oregon Academy of Family Physicians, The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Oregon Nurses Association, Harm Reduction Coalition, YWCA of Greater Portland, Oregon Chapter of the American College of Physicians, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Coalition of Communities of Color, Oregon School Psychologists’ Association, SEIU Local 49 & 503, Oregon AFL-CIO, and over 120 others.

Related Federal & State Advocacy
The Oregon victory demonstrates that decriminalization is politically viable, invigorating efforts already underway in other states and even in Congress, where DPA has released a federal framework for drug decriminalization. The effort, outlined in a proposal, Dismantling the Federal Drug War: A Comprehensive Drug Decriminalization Framework, unveiled by the organization in August 2020, provides a roadmap for policymakers to effectively end the criminalization of people who use drugs and begin repairing the harm drug law enforcement has caused, particularly in communities of color. 

The Drug Policy Alliance has long advocated for drug decriminalization as a critical first step in ending the drug war, including in its 2017 report, It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession. The report is a result of a comprehensive review of public health and criminology literature, an analysis of drug policies in the U.S. and abroad, and input from experts in the fields of drug policy and criminal justice. 

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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