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April 13, 2021

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In Our View: Oregon drug decriminalization provides insight

The Columbian
Published:

A proposed experiment of decriminalizing drugs in Washington comes with a ready-made laboratory.

Oregon last week became the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, oxycodone and other addictive drugs. That is the result of a November ballot measure that was approved by 58 percent of voters. Under the Oregon law, people found in possession face a $100 fine or a health assessment that could lead to counseling, rather than incarceration.

That approach could provide some guidance as Washington considers a similar move. House Bill 1499 would decriminalize drugs in this state; Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, is among 24 co-sponsors.

“We need a new approach to health and safety,” Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-West Seattle, told Crosscut. “There’s a lot of reckoning happening right now to make sure we’re undoing the wrongs of the past.”

That reckoning largely involves racial disparities in how drug laws are applied. As Crosscut reports: “Researchers have consistently found that the harsh sanctions of the past century’s War on Drugs intensified racial disparities in drug arrests. While in 1976 Black people constituted 22 percent of drug-related arrests nationwide, by 1992, they accounted for 40 percent of such arrests, according to FBI data. That’s despite … federal surveys finding Black people are no more likely to use drugs than white people.”

Indeed, the application of drug laws is a prime example of systemic racism and how it has affected minority communities. As the Drug Policy Alliance writes: “Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for Black people as for white people charged with the same offense.”

That calls for changes in both drug laws and enforcement. Washington was one of the first states to legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults, with voters approving Initiative 502 in 2012; now, 15 states have legalized marijuana use.

But while changes are necessary, caution is warranted. Treatment is preferable to incarceration for those who possess drugs for personal use, but stringent enforcement of drug dealers must remain in place. And treatment still will require a robust investment from citizens.

As the Salem Reporter found in an investigation reported last week: “Oregon is poised to dramatically expand an addiction treatment system that already consumes millions of dollars each year with no clear results. Oregonians passed Measure 110 last fall to take drug users out of jails and put them into clinics. That could move thousands of people into a system already clogged and lacking evidence it’s effective.”

Washington’s proposed law differs from Oregon’s in that it would not impose a fine for drug possession. It instead would refer violators to drug recovery programs, mental health treatment or other community-based services. This runs the risk of creating a revolving door that fails to provide effective treatment or address the scourge of drugs in our communities.

Addiction leads to increased crime and expenditures for public health, law enforcement and the criminal justice system. In trying to address those issues, Oregon can provide some insight for Washington — but it will take time to assess the impact of the new law.

Washington lawmakers should focus on reducing the racial disparities involved with drug policy rather than wholeheartedly embracing an approach that might or might not be an improvement.

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