In 2015 more than 50,000 people died from a drug overdose, while 13,000 of those deaths were due to heroin, that number was up 13% from 2014. Nearly 10,000 of those people died from an overdose on synthetic opiods like fentanyl, up 73% from 2014. In fact, 4/5 heroin addicts were first addicted to the synthetic opiods prescribed by doctors across the country.
This number is scary as hell, considering that 7/10 Americans take at least one prescription daily, while more than half are prescribed at least two drugs to take regularly. The number of Americans taking prescription drugs has increased 48% in the last decade, and we can logically conclude that the actions of doctors and pharmaceutical companies has helped kill hundreds of thousands of Americans in that time period.
The numbers are alarming, and the question of how do we handle this country’s drug epidemic has become a more bipartisan issue. As politicians and health experts scramble to come up with a solution, Oregon thinks they may have found an answer.
Last month the Oregon state legislature passed two controversial bills, HB3078 and HB2355, meant to tackle the state’s growing drug problem. In a state that sees more than 19,000 deaths annually from drug overdoses, why would legislatures pass two bills that essentially decriminalize the possession of heroin, meth, cocaine, and other hard drugs? Shockingly, the answer comes from the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association and the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police, who wholeheartedly support the legislation;
“The two groups released a statement Monday saying they want to lighten what they see as the heavy hand of Oregon law by supporting changes that would make drug possession a misdemeanor. They support the change only in cases when someone possesses “user amounts” of drugs and commits no other crime.”
The two groups argue that drug addicts need professional treatment, not jail time, and while at first glance the idea to decriminalize incredibly dangerous substances may seem idiotic, it’s not like it has never been done before.
The Portugal Experiment
In 2001 Portugal saw a rising drug epidemic in their country, in an attempt to fix that problem the decriminalized all drugs. The Portuguese saw drugs not as a criminal problem, but a public health problem, they decided that instead of send
ing offenders to prison, everyone would be better served if the offender entered a mandatory treatment program. At the time, the move was roundly criticized, both within Portugal and abroad for being reckless. Sixteen years later, Portugal has the second lowest overdose rate of any country in the European Union, with only three people out of a million succumbing to a drug overdose.
Despite decriminalization, Portugal has actually seen a dramatic decrease in drug usage, as well as a decrease in the diseases, and costs, associated with drug use.
What Oregon’s Legislation Actually Does
As it stands, drug use costs the state of Oregon $6 billion taxpayer dollars annually, while 23% of inmates within the state are serving time for drug related offenses, and 72% of men arrested within the state are charged with some sort of drug related crime. The negative economic effect this problem has on the economy, as well as the number of families that are torn apart because of the health issues and lengthy prison sentences associated with drug usage are staggering. Oregon policy expert Dale Jarvis explains the negative effects drug usage has had on Oregon;
“What many don’t realize is that someone with a serious addictions disorder is going to have their body fall apart in a relatively short period. They are going to become disabled, if they don’t die first. They’re going to end up costing the taxpayer an enormous amount of money treating their serious health conditions, and then they are going to die early.”
House Bill 2355 would decriminalize hard drugs for offenders with no previous felonies, and no more than 2 previous drug convictions. Diverting offenders to mandatory treatment programs instead of putting a criminal conviction on their record gives these offenders a chance at a viable future, an opportunity for them to recover and live a normal life, providing them with hope for the future.
House Bill 3078 would be enacted in conjunction with HB2355, reducing drug related property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Known as the “Family Sentencing Alternative Pilot Program” offenders would be eligible if:
(b) The defendant [has not previously been convicted of, and] is not currently being sentenced for: (A) A person felony as defined in the rules of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission; (B) A sex crime as defined in ORS [181.805] 163A.005; or (C) An offense requiring a specified sentence
Instead of jail time, eligible offenders will have to enroll in a 12 month treatment program followed by a probationary period, with the goal being to help these addicts recover and live a normal life.
“the Department of Human Services, shall determine if the Family Sentencing Alternative Pilot Program is an appropriate program for the defendant and, if the program is appropriate and the defendant is sentenced to a term of probation, require participation in the program for the first 12 months of the probationary sentence. In addition to the conditions of probation ordered under ORS 137.540, the defendant may be required to comply with any additional conditions related to the program”
HB3078 would further provide local jurisdictions with $7 million dollars annually to give communities the resources to set up treatment programs.
Whether or not the inefficient state should be running such a program is debatable. But what isn’t debatable is the fact that this country has a major drug problem, and the status quo isn’t working. Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Lets hope, for everyone’s sake, that Oregon’s new policy towards drugs is signed into law, and effective.