What State Allows Drug Possession?

Oregon’s bipartisan Joint Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response met on the last Tuesday in February to vote on a bill simply known as House Bill 4002. The committee voted 10-2 in favor of the bill, with all of the committee members broadly aligned on the problem HB4002 sought to fix, if not the specifics of the solutions it proposed. It was an unusual display of bipartisan cooperation, made all the more unusual by the purpose of HB4002: to recriminalize hard drugs.

In November 2020, Oregon voters passed referendum Measure 110, also known as the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act. Its premise was simple: Drug addiction and overdoses are serious problems, and a health-based approach that emphasizes and expands access to treatment is more humane, effective, and cost-effective than criminalizing and incarcerating addicts. Measure 110 sought to adjust the state’s approach to addiction.

Before Measure 110 was codified and put into force, Oregon’s drug laws were similar to the rest of the country’s. Simple possession of hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, or fentanyl was considered either a felony or a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and fines of up to $6,250. Measure 110 reclassified personal non-commercial possession of controlled substances as a Class E violation, which came with a maximum fine of $100. Violators who received citations for simple possession were also given the opportunity to have the charges dismissed if they obtained a treatment needs screening within 45 days of the citation.

Measure 110 also included provisions requiring the state to establish a series of drug treatment facilities and programs – what the Oregonian Senate Bill 755 called “Behavioral Resource Networks (BHRNs)” – to provide low-barrier substance use disorder treatment for anyone who needed it. Funding would come from a combination of the state’s marijuana tax revenues, state prison savings, and other sources of revenue, as needed.

There was plenty of hope that Measure 110 would have a positive effect on the state and its residents. Decriminalization meant that being caught with a small bag of drugs wouldn’t result in life-ruining charges. Emphasizing treatment would prevent overdoses and give addicts the chance to address their issues and go back to living normal lives. It would be expensive, sure, but the state planned on using at least $125 million annually from its marijuana tax revenues, and the lack of new drug convictions meant the Oregon Department of Corrections wouldn’t need all of its $1 billion annual budget.

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