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Oregon Decriminalizes Simple Possession of All Drugs

First US State to Take a Public Health Approach to Substance Use

Election workers empty ballots at the Multnomah County Elections Division in Portland, Oregon, November 3, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Paula Bronstein

Oregon voters have made history by making it the first US state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all drugs for personal use. The new law will invest resources in voluntary treatment and other support for people who struggle with problematic drug use, while removing criminal penalties that cause devastating harm.

Oregon Measure 110 reclassifies personal possession of small amounts of drugs from a Class A misdemeanor to no more than a violation. Now, instead of arrest, possession will result in either a $100 fine or a health assessment, including a substance use disorder screening by a certified counselor. The measure funds treatment and other services through a portion of the substantial tax revenue Oregon is receiving as a result of cannabis legalization. It also reduces penalties for possession of larger quantities of drugs, reducing most offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.

Human Rights Watch supported the measure and has long advocated for states and the federal government to decriminalize the use and possession for personal use of all drugs and focus instead on harm reduction and health-based approaches to problematic substance use.  

In the US, more people are arrested for drug possession than for any other offense, with 1.35 million people being arrested in 2019. In 2016 Human Rights Watch documented how these arrests disproportionately impact Black and brown people, leading to incarceration in many cases, as well as criminal records that keep people from accessing jobs, housing, and education. Criminalization does nothing to help people struggling with substance use disorder, instead routinely leading to a revolving door of arrest and incarceration. Criminalization is also inconsistent with respect for human autonomy and privacy rights and amounts to disproportionate punishment.

In addition to Oregon’s historic vote, there were other drug reform wins in states that will help chip away at the harmful US war on drugs. Recreational marijuana use was legalized in New Jersey, Arizona, Montana, and South Dakota, medical marijuana was approved in Mississippi, psilocybin was legalized for therapeutic use in Oregon, and enforcement of laws prohibiting certain psychedelic plants and fungi was de-prioritized in Washington, DC.


However, Oregon’s Measure 110 stands out because it fundamentally transforms the state’s approach to personal drug use and may prove to be a model for future reforms. The United States needs more initiatives along these lines to stop the ongoing harm done by decades of criminalization.



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