Groups advocating for drug decriminalization hope to be able to put a ballot measure before Oregon voters in November. If the measure reaches the ballot and is approved, Oregon would become the first state to eliminate criminal penalties for possessing illegal drugs. Advocacy groups including the Drug Policy Alliance have been gathering signatures in support of decriminalization for some time. The ballot measure was announced on Feb. 29.

If Oregon voters back Initiative Petition 44, possessing drugs such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine would be punished by a $100 non-criminal fine instead of months or even years behind bars. The fine would be waived if the person agrees to visit a drug recovery center for an assessment. Supporters of the measure see drug addiction as health care and not a criminal problem, and they believe that eliminating harsh penalties will remove the stigma surrounding drug use and encourage individuals struggling with addiction to seek help.

Studies have found that drug treatment programs are seriously underfunded in Oregon. Initiative Proposal 44 addresses this issue by ramping up funding for addiction services using money gathered from taxes on legal marijuana. Cannabis revenues are currently used to help pay for schools and public services. Money for recovery programs will also be sourced by diverting funds that will no longer be needed to cover the costs of incarcerating drug users.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys would likely support measures that promote rehabilitation over punishment for minor drug charges. When representing individuals accused of possessing small quantities of drugs, attorneys may make arguments during plea negotiations similar to those made by the decriminalization advocacy groups supporting this measure. Attorneys could point out that treatment costs less than incarceration, and they may argue that prisons are not the place to send nonviolent individuals who are dealing with substance abuse issues.