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As Oregon decriminalizes drugs, Philly officials are paying close attention

“We do expect it to set off a cascade around the country,” says the head of the Drug Policy Alliance, the national advocacy organization that wrote Oregon’s ballot measure.

Volunteers deliver boxes of signed petitions in favor of Measure 110 to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office in June. The measure, which passed on Election Day, decriminalizes possession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine, LSD, and other drugs.
Volunteers deliver boxes of signed petitions in favor of Measure 110 to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office in June. The measure, which passed on Election Day, decriminalizes possession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine, LSD, and other drugs.Read moreYes on Measure 110 Campaign via AP / File

Since Oregon became the first state in the country to decriminalize drugs earlier this month, advocates there are hoping the new law could shift national perceptions around addiction and how to treat it.

Officials in Philadelphia are paying close attention.

The ballot measure, written by the national advocacy organization Drug Policy Alliance and backed by a slew of local groups in Oregon, will make the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use — including heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine — a violation punishable by a $100 fine or a substance-abuse screening, instead of a criminal misdemeanor.

Selling drugs, or possessing them in higher quantities, will still be a criminal offense.

Oregon is the first state in the country to enact such a sweeping decriminalization law, and its backers hope that it becomes a national model for treating drug use as a disease rather than as a criminal offense.

“This is a huge victory — it is literally taking a sledgehammer to the cornerstone of the drug war,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit that spent more than $4 million campaigning for the ballot measure in Oregon. “We do expect it to set off a cascade around the country.”

The idea is not without precedent elsewhere in the world. Portugal, for example, decriminalized all drugs in 2000 in the midst of a devastating heroin addiction crisis — and saw the number of overdoses and HIV infections plummet. Philadelphia officials said earlier this year that the country of 10 million people was one place they were looking for answers to the city’s own overdose crisis, which kills three people here a day.

» READ MORE: Portugal’s answer to the heroin crisis

“We will be watching Oregon closely to assess whether the measure has an impact on the number of individuals experiencing overdose and accessing treatment,” James Garrow, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, said in a statement.

And other American jurisdictions, including Philadelphia, have embarked on piecemeal decriminalization programs of their own. Possessing small amounts of marijuana has been a summary offense in Philadelphia for years, and District Attorney Larry Krasner has been dropping charges of simple drug possession if defendants can prove they are engaging in some kind of treatment.

But Oregon’s statewide codification of drug decriminalization is a first — and a tall order for a place such as Pennsylvania, Krasner said.

“Our city is the biggest city in a state that repeatedly goes the wrong direction on criminal justice policy, including drug policy,” he said. “We cannot expect any relief from our Republican-controlled legislature at this time. So we have done what we can do at this time to bring a public health approach to our cases of possession of drugs.”

Krasner said he thinks Oregon is “trying to go in the right direction — toward a public-health approach to the disease that is addiction and to the mere use of drugs.”

The Oregon ballot measure was met with steep opposition in some circles — from law enforcement officials to some recovery advocates, who maintained that the criminal justice system and drug courts are also a path to treatment.

» READ MORE: As COVID-19 spikes, so do overdoses among Center City restaurant workers, jolting a stressed community

But backers of the bill, which include a number of recovery and harm-reduction organizations, said it represents a new way forward from a system that relies on incarceration — and disproportionately affects people of color.

“It really captures what people were demanding over a summer of protests [over police brutality] — where people were really pushing this conversation about how we divest from police and invest in the community,” Frederique said. “This measure removes criminalization and takes those resources and invests it into health and harm reduction services and treatment.”

Advocates were also encouraged by a report from Oregon’s Criminal Justice Commission that found, if the ballot measure passed, charges and convictions for drug possession would drop by 94% among Black and Native American residents and 91% among white residents.

“If you see who is being charged, who is being convicted, there are huge disparities between people of color and their white counterparts,” said Kayse Jama, executive director of Unite Oregon, a statewide racial-justice organization.

Oregon is consistently one of the lowest ranked states in the country for access to addiction treatment. Its law will also use millions from cannabis taxes — marijuana has been legal in the state since 2014 — to fund treatment centers across the state. Its four million people have high rates of addiction and overdose — one to two people a day die of overdoses in the state.

Haven Wheelock, one of the two co-petitioners on the ballot measure, and who also runs Portland’s syringe exchange, said the reaction from clients after the bill’s passage was “universal relief.”

“I don’t believe that people should have to get arrested, should have to get punished, to get help,” she said.