Is decriminalization necessary?

In November, Oregon will vote on The Drug Addiction and Recovery Act. The main goal of this initiative is to make substance abuse recovery resources available to more people within the state. This plan will be funded by tax revenue from legal cannabis sales, along with money saved by implementing the proposed strategy from the state prison system. This has proven to be a controversial topic, so let's examine why.  

The Drug Addiction and Recovery Act proposes sweeping changes, including the decriminalization of drugs. According to the petition that was signed to get the act on the ballot, about 8,900 individuals are arrested each year in Oregon, many of whom are charged with simple possession of illegal drugs. This new legislation would make simple possession of most drugs a violation rather than a crime.

It has long been suggested that modifying the laws that govern drug possession could create an environment where individuals receive support instead of being punished. Furthermore, this change in policy could potentially save the criminal justice system a tremendous amount of money. According to a research article, Lifetime Benefits and Costs of Diverting Substance-Abusing Offenders From State Prison, if 10 percent of drug-addicted offenders received drug rehabilitation instead of jail time, the criminal justice system would save $4.8 billion. This number increases with the percentage of people diverted away from our nation's expensive prison system.

While the above numbers are on a national level, it is reasonable to assume that there is a substantial amount of savings that could be achieved with statewide implementation of the practice mentioned above. But the question remains whether or not decriminalization of drug-possession is influential in getting individuals into treatment programs.

This is a point of major controversy.

Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton has openly stated that he thinks decriminalization "is a terrible idea." While in favor of more drug treatment resources, Barton feels decriminalization will lead to increased crime and drug use. He also believes the act is inappropriately named and is deceiving to voters, and he may have a point.

Most people who vote in November will see The Drug Addiction and Recovery Act and probably won't think twice about approving the initiative. Many of these people may be unaware that they are also voting to decriminalize drug possession throughout Oregon communities. Barton believes that the significant decriminalization aspect of the new law should be included somewhere in the title because it is unrealistic every voter will read all 19 pages of the proposed legislation.

While this proposed law is a step in the right direction, is it necessary for the state to decriminalize drug possession to get more people into substance abuse treatment? Further, is the title of the act misleading, potentially accomplishing a noble cause through a deceptive method, and if so, does this detract from its goal?

A major fear is that if drugs are decriminalized, individuals may be less likely to seek treatment because, as a society, we are accepting and allowing addiction. Instead of having people choose between going to jail or going to treatment, they merely pay a fine and are not obligated to complete any rehabilitation. Diversion programs that funnel people into treatment may not work nearly as well without consequences to motivate compliance. If there are no substantial repercussions for drug possession, will we see less engagement in recovery or more?

Perhaps only time will tell, but these are things to consider when casting your vote in November.

Cori Buck lives in Newport, where she is a health care professional and an expert in substance abuse and addiction recovery. She uses her years of experience to provide insight into the nation’s drug epidemic and other issues surrounding medical care in society. She is a regular contributor to the health website


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