Decriminalization is a social disaster
Last updated 2/15/2022 at Noon
Sometimes you know you’ve made a terrible mistake as soon as you take that first wrong turn.
Oregon took a sharp turn down the wrong road in passing Measure 110 — the Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative approved by voters in 2020. Measure 110 makes personal possession of a controlled substance a violation subject only to a maximum fine of $100, and established a drug addiction treatment and recovery program funded in part by the state’s marijuana tax revenue and state prison savings.
Sheriff Shane Nelson decried the unintended consequences of the measure at a presentation to People’s Rights Oregon 5 last month, and the evidence that his assessment is correct keeps piling up.
Emphasizing treatment over incarceration is the right way to go —but relying on drug users and addicts to decide that they want treatment is never going to work. Measure 110 relies on citations rather than arrest for “personal use” quantities of drugs — amounts that are not insubstantial. Evidence so far shows pretty conclusively that very few of those cited are getting a drug assessment and virtually nobody is getting treatment.
Just as opponents of the measure argued during the election, we are expecting people who are using extremely destructive, and, in the case of methamphetamine, profoundly mind-bending drugs to act as rational actors who can see what’s best for them and seek it out. It’s magical thinking. It’s bad for society, but it’s also a disaster for the people it’s supposed to help.
Journalist and author Sam Quinones has it right: “It may be in fact extraordinarily damaging to people, not an act of benevolence, but an act of torment to actually keep someone on the street,” he said in an OPB interview.
“Taking someone off the street using jail somehow to detox people—people are doing this across the country now—might be a more benevolent, more kind way of dealing with someone.
Certainly just saying, well, you’re on the street and we’ve got you with these implements that are kind of misdemeanors or low-level felonies or maybe you have some stolen property or whatever, but we’re going to leave you here and we’re going to wait till you’re ready for treatment; the idea that people need to be ready for treatment is an idea that’s made completely obsolete by this meth.”
A close friend of mine has a relative who is, at age 45, in the likely terminal throes of a lifelong addiction to hard drugs. He’s been living off-and-on on the streets of a large city where a similar drug decriminalization policy is in effect. Currently, he abides in a 150-square-foot tiny home in a village, established by an agency for homeless residents. He has been using multiple drugs: Xanax, cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl, and currently has two charges outstanding with law enforcement. He suffers from multiple, severe health issues that have periodically required hospitalization.
He considers decriminalization a disaster. He says that the streets have become an open-air drug market and shooting gallery. And, he says, with enforcement for drug offenses dropping off, law enforcement is not responding to crimes involving addicts.
A law promulgated with the best of intentions has gone awry. It’s hurting everyone and helping no one. As Sheriff Nelson stated in his presentation, “In order for something to work, enforcement has to be part of it.”
Treatment MUST be available — and we must
be willing to step up to
provide resources for it. But treatment has to be mandatory and supervised, and the consequence of incarceration has to be in the equation. We can’t afford to wait. Oregon must act to unwind Measure 110, and take a better road.