Oregon shouldn’t go backwards on drug decriminalization

Oregon is in danger of repealing one of the most important criminal legal system reforms of recent years: here’s why the state should keep Measure 110 intact.

by Sarah Staudt, February 15, 2024

In 2020, Oregon adopted Measure 110, a transformational change to the way drug possession and addiction were treated by the criminal legal system. Instead of incarceration and criminal charges, Measure 110 ensured that possession of small amounts of drugs was responded to with a ticket and referral to services. Since its passage, more than $302 million has been invested in addiction services and social supports, and more people are going to treatment.

Despite the successes of Measure 110, however, Oregon legislators are threatening to recriminalize drug use in Oregon. The bill, HB 4002-1, would make possession of small amounts of controlled substances a criminal offense once again, reversing a revolutionary reform and returning to the failed policies of the War on Drugs.

Reversing Measure 110 would be harmful to thousands of Oregonians, and would be a failure of leadership. Legislators claim they are responding to an increase in homelessness and public drug use — but recriminalization will only make those problems worse. Instead of resurrecting policies that didn’t work the first time, the Oregon Legislature should invest in proven strategies to prevent and treat addiction, reduce homelessness, and improve public safety, and should invest in treatment and housing, not incarceration.


Measure 110 is working

There’s no evidence Measure 110 is responsible for crime, overdoses, homelessness, or increased drug use. Although COVID-19 made assessing the impact of Measure 110 more difficult, early indicators suggest that the law is achieving its goals: reducing arrests while increasing access to care. Jails and incarceration often strand people without treatment, but the referrals to community-based care created by Measure 110 offer a lasting pathway to health and better quality of life. Here are just some of the successes of Measure 110:

  • The Oregon Health Authority reported a 298% increase in people seeking screening for substance use disorders.
  • More than 370,000 naloxone doses have been distributed since 2022, and community organizations report more than 7,500 opioid overdose reversals since 2020.
  • Although overdose rates have increased around the country as more fentanyl has entered the drug supply, Oregon’s increase in overdoses has been similar to other states’ and actually less than neighboring Washington’s. A peer-reviewed study comparing overdose rates in Oregon with the rest of the country after the law went into effect found no link between Measure 110 and increased overdose rates.
  • There is no evidence that drug use rates in Oregon have increased. A cross-sectional survey of people who use drugs across eight counties in Oregon found that most had been using drugs for years; only 1.5% reported having started after Measure 110 went into effect.
  • There has been no increase in 911 calls in Oregon cities after Measure 110.
  • Measure 110 saves Oregonians millions. Oregon is expected to save $37 million between 2023-2025 if Measure 110 continues. This is because it costs up to $35,217 to arrest, adjudicate, incarcerate, and supervise a person taken into custody for a drug misdemeanor — and upwards of $60,000 for a felony. In contrast, treatment costs an average of $9,000 per person. The money saved by Measure 110 goes directly to state funding for addiction and recovery services.
  • There is no evidence that Measure 110 was associated with a rise in crime. In fact, crime in Oregon was 14% lower in 2023 than it was in 2020.
Graph showing reported crimes in Oregon 2020-2023

All of this has been achieved while Measure 110 also served one of its primary intentions — reducing total arrests. Arrests for possession of a controlled substance dropped 67% after Measure 110 went into effect, meaning that thousands of people have avoided the lifelong barriers caused by arrests and convictions. And although there has been an increase in homelessness in the past few years in Oregon, implementation of Measure 110 also lines up with the lifting of eviction protections in place during the pandemic — a much more likely culprit for increased numbers of people without shelter.


Recriminalization will make Oregon’s problems worse

Recriminalization of drug possession will put Oregon on a path backwards and will damage the lives and livelihoods of its residents — particularly of Black Oregonians.

First, recriminalization will overburden already stretched systems, increasing harm and costing lives. Oregon’s criminal legal system, particularly its public defense system, is massively underfunded and understaffed. Recriminalization will overwhelm the courts with thousands of new cases that they do not have the capacity to adjudicate. This is likely to strand more people in Oregon’s jails — which are already seeing record deaths among people in custody. Jails are particularly dangerous places for the people with substance use disorders who will be most affected by recriminalization; increasing jail populations is likely to exacerbate these existing health problems, costing more lives.

The effects of recriminalization will fall hardest on Black Oregonians, increasing racial disparities. Unfortunately, even under Measure 110, it is clear that Black Oregonians with substance use disorders are much more heavily policed than their white counterparts. Black people have been disproportionately issued citations under Measure 110 — 4.6% of citations went to Black people, who are only 2.3% of Oregon’s population. Portland’s police department has the fifth highest arrest rate disparities in the country, arresting Black people at a rate 4.3 times that of white people. And while proponents of recriminalization claim that diversion programs will still be available, the reality is that Black people are more often excluded from diversion programs than white people are, making them more likely to remain trapped in the criminal legal system.


Forced treatment isn’t the solution

The recriminalization bill focuses on forced substance use treatment as a “solution” to substance use disorders. But forced treatment is a false promise. There are many reasons why people with substance use disorders don’t seek treatment, including problems with lack of access, cost, excessive requirements for getting into and staying in treatment, and having more pressing concerns like needing food, employment, housing, or medical treatment. Addressing those underlying problems — and increasing the availability of voluntary treatment overall — is the best way to get more people into the treatment they need.

Forced treatment is also not effective. A systematic review of studies found no evidence that compelling people to attend substance use treatment leads to improved outcomes. Instead, it can cause harm: people who are forced into treatment can end up at higher risk of overdose. Because forced treatment imposes sudden, enforced abstinence, it can lower people’s drug tolerance — leading to a higher risk of overdose if they relapse. A recent analysis of mandatory abstinence treatment programs found that people who were mandated to attend these programs were 3.7 times more likely to have experienced an overdose in the past 6-12 months.


Oregon should invest in proven solutions

There’s no denying that Oregon, like the rest of the country, is experiencing serious problems with homelessness, substance use disorders, and overdose. To address these problems, Oregon should invest in effective, compassionate solutions, instead of defaulting to criminalization.

The first thing Oregon should do is invest in more housing, focusing on proven housing-first strategies, and strategies that reduce evictions. Investing in housing does not just solve homelessness — it also addresses substance use itself. Evictions are associated with higher rates of death from drug use, and higher rates of public drug use. Making sure people can have and keep housing improves their quality of life, and the quality of life of all Oregonians.

Oregon should also invest in more voluntary treatment beds. Detox centers in Portland are turning away half the people who come to them because of lack of capacity. Overall, Oregon has only a 50% treatment capacity to meet the need. Mandating more treatment won’t fix this problem — indeed, it will make the treatment shortage worse. Instead, Oregon needs to heavily invest in more voluntary drug treatment and crisis centers to meet the needs of its residents.



Oregon is poised to undo one of the most important criminal legal system improvements of the 21st century. Instead of reverting to the mistakes of the past, Oregon lawmakers should act with courage to pursue solutions that work, and reject the pressure to try to arrest their way out of substance use and homelessness. Measure 110 is working to make Oregonians safer and healthier; Oregon’s leaders should stand up for their state’s innovative and successful reforms, and avoid the tired rhetoric and policies of mass criminalization.

Sarah Staudt is the Policy and Advocacy Director at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

One response:

  1. Diane Richards says:

    Reading this article has enlightened me, educated me. I had been thinking decriminalizing ‘hard drugs’ was a slippery slope ending in a dangerous hole for the public. I now feel after reading this article that the slippery slope ending in a dangerous hole is mass incarceration. A problem that often occurs is implementation of a policy without having the necessary steps in place first, in this case that being facility bed space, drug addiction group therapy, one on one counseling with licensed clinical counselors, housing, followed up with employment opportunities. We need to stop putting the cart in front of the horse, that ends up in public rage and spewing of inaccurate information. Thank you for educating,educate more of us

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