Hundreds of overdose deaths later, Oregon recriminalizes drugs

Oregon in 2020 made the decision to decriminalize certain hard drugs. In a far-from-shocking development, an increase of hundreds in overdose deaths followed, and now the state is reversing course.

In 2020, 58% of Oregon voters supported decriminalizing possession of personal amounts of drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, making the punishment for possession a ticket and a maximum fine of just $100. As you can imagine, removing jail time as a possibility did nothing to incentivize addicts to seek treatment, given that the most they could be hit with at any one time is a fine of $100.

Overdose deaths surged from 472 in 2020 to 738 in 2021 to 956 in 2022. In 2023, Oregon had 628 overdose deaths in just the first six months of the year, and, with that data still incomplete, the Oregon Health Authority notes that “The number of opioid overdose visits to EDs and UCCs in 2023 are higher than previous years.”

Now, state legislators have reversed the bad decision voters made (which many of those legislators supported at the time as well) by reinstituting criminal penalties. Possession of those drugs is now a misdemeanor with a maximum of six months in prison. The law also gives those arrested the option to seek treatment instead of receiving jail time because, get this, most drug addicts need to have outside pressure to seek treatment. A $100 fine was never going to move the needle (pardon the pun).


Oregon still has a massive amount of work to do. Homelessness and homicides are also up from 2020, and the social decay from tolerating crime will take a lot longer to rectify than the semblance of lawfulness and order took to destroy. But this is a good first step. It is a recognition of the practicalities of human nature. It also recognizes the reality that letting addicts fall further into their addiction is healthy neither for them nor for the other residents of the state subjected to their violence or the health hazards that come with drug-addicted homelessness.

Of course, many people could have told Oregon Democrats and Oregon voters that this experiment would be a disaster back in 2020 when they thought that giving drug addicts no reason not to indulge their addiction would somehow make things better. This is another example of the faulty premise of “criminal justice reform” failing its test against reality. Oregon is fixing its mistake, but it comes four years and hundreds of overdose deaths too late.

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