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'A Sledgehammer To The War On Drugs': Oregon Decriminalizes Illegal Drugs

A cocaine consumer shows a bag of the drug. (Juan Manuel Barrero/AFP/Getty Images)
A cocaine consumer shows a bag of the drug. (Juan Manuel Barrero/AFP/Getty Images)

Legislation that decriminalizes the possession of all illegal drugs goes into effect in Oregon on Monday.

Approved by voters in November, the measure says the state will fine offenders and offer addiction treatment instead of prison time. By addressing drug use as a public health issue rather than a crime, this historic change takes "a sledgehammer to the war on drugs," saysKassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Drug users need help, not punishment, she says, yet drug possession is the most commonreason for arrestin the U.S. This legislation disrupts the relationship between getting help and getting in trouble.

"As someone who was a social worker, I recognize that people make different choices when they want to make those choices," she says. "Punishing people has never been an effective deterrent when it’s come to complex human behavior."

People dealing with addiction have limited treatment options in jail or prison, she says, whereas remaining part of their community helps folks maintain dignity and sovereignty to make better choices.

Under Oregon's new legislation, decriminalizing all drugs includes substances such as heroin, cocaine and meth. Opponents argue that by removing a major disincentive to do drugs, the law could fuel more drug use.

With more Americans dying from drug overdoses than ever before, Frederique says treatment and community resources need to be funded. Decriminalizing drugs sends a message to Oregonians that help is available, she says.

"There’s been so much cognitive dissonance about what the message is. Is it tough love or is it love?" she says. "And what I say is love is not supposed to hurt."

And Oregon isn't alone: Vermont, Colorado, Washington, California and Virginia are also looking into decriminalizing drugs.

"I think more people are looking at this than people realize because everyone recognizes that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem," she says. "So let’s stop investing in that and let’s actually start investing in community well-being."


Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.