Is drug policy in the United States ready for an overhaul?
That may already be happening in Oregon.
New legislation there would reclassify first-time offenses for possession of small quantities of hard drugs, including cocaine and heroin, as misdemeanors rather than felonies.
Supporters of the law say that the bill will fight drug abuse by making it easier for people dealing with addiction to seek medical treatment.
The bill has garnered support from state legislators on both sides of the aisle, as well as law enforcement.
It is also intended to make drug control policy more equitable to people of color who are, according to an Oregon criminal justice study, convicted on felony drug charges at more than double the rate of whites.
“Felony sentences for small, user quantity amounts often carry heavy consequences including barriers to housing and employment, which have a disparate impact on minority communities,” Oregon House Speaker, Tina Kotek, told the Statesman Journal.
House Bill 2355 says possession of small amounts of any of the six drugs named in the bill would have the penalty lowered from a felony to a misdemeanor for first-time offenders.
The drugs mentioned in the bill include: methadone, oxycodone, heroin, MDMA, cocaine, and methamphetamine.
The bill does not “decriminalize” these drugs, as some outlets have reported. Possession will still result in criminal charges.
Laws in other countries
Oregon’s new legislation could represent a significant shift in the fight against the opioid epidemic gripping the United States.
Although still significantly stricter, Oregon’s proposal is reminiscent of some of Europe’s more liberal drug control policies.
In the Netherlands, personal possession of small quantities of drugs is not subject to a legal penalty, and the country’s policy emphasizes public health rather than punishment.
On the far end of the drug control spectrum is Portugal, which decriminalized possession of any drug in 2001. Drugs are still illegal, but users face fines and treatment programs rather than jail sentences.
Since decriminalization in 2001, the country now has three overdoses per 1 million citizens, compared with the European Union average of 17 per million.
The use of dangerous new “legal highs,” such as bath salts, is also significantly lower in Portugal.
Different strategies for different nations
Mark Kleiman, PhD, a professor of public policy at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management, told Healthline, “There’s no ‘right way’ [to do drug control policy] because it is dependent on each country.”
That is, what works for one nation may not work for the next.
Japan, for example, is usually identified as having the toughest drug laws in the developed world.
Their laws include a zero tolerance policy and heavy jail sentences.
However, drug use there is also low.
The country’s drug policy has been contentious, particularly when it comes to foreign visitors, who may not be aware of the severity of the country’s laws.
In the United States, breaking new ground on drug control policy will likely continue to arise out of the opioid epidemic.
According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fatal drug overdoses have more than doubled since 1999. In 2015, 60 percent of all drug overdoses were from opioids.
Several largely Republican states that include West Virginia, Tennessee, and Ohio, have been hit hard and forced GOP politicians to rethink the issue.
Kleiman, however, is hesitant for the United States to harp on opioids when it comes to reform.
“There’s always a drug problem du jour. I keep reminding people that the opiates are still a much less important problem than alcohol,” he said.