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Commentary

States Should Follow Oregon’s Lead and Decriminalize Hard Drugs



On July 6, the Oregon legislature voted to defelonize cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, oxycodone, LSD, and ecstasy. While reform of prohibitions on both medical and recreational use of marijuana has gained popularity in states across the country, most people remain skeptical of the benefits of reducing or eliminating criminal penalties for harder drugs. Yet, rolling back prohibitions on harder drugs is likely to bring greater benefits than those produced by the relaxation of marijuana prohibitions precisely because the harder drugs are more dangerous.

Oregon House Bill 2355, which would become state law if Gov. Kate Brown signs it as expected, defelonizes the possession of small amounts of the drugs for people who do not have more than two prior drug convictions or any felony convictions. If it becomes law, Oregon will become the first state to defelonize these hard drugs.

In 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and, in 2015, it became the fourth state to legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational use. Today, eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use and most states have passed some version of decriminalization or removed prohibitions on the use of medical marijuana.

Although reform efforts related to marijuana prohibition continue to gain support, little momentum has been gained for the removal or reduction of criminal penalties for other hard illicit drugs. However, at least one major problem exacerbated by prohibition is even more pronounced for these harder drugs than it is for marijuana.

America’s drug war has been failing for years. The demand for most drugs is not very price sensitive because people dependent on drugs continue to buy even as prices rise. As a result, the predominantly supply-side war drives up prices and does little to decrease consumption. Meanwhile, illegality makes the potency of the drugs less predictable.

When drugs are illegal, there is, by definition, no legal supply chain that can be held accountable for the drug’s quality. Producers in legal markets who provide inferior products harm their reputation or confront the possibility of legal action. These safeguards are absent in illegal markets.

Poor-quality marijuana might disappoint its user, but it typically isn’t particularly dangerous. Harder drugs pose significantly greater risks to users as a result of the introduction of impurities. Prohibition increases the risk that drugs will be confiscated while they are being transported. So, illegality encourages high potency to maximize the narcotic to weight and size ratio and reduce the risk of detection associated with smuggling.

Retail suppliers then reduce potency by cutting the product. But they often cut the product with inexpensive but dangerous ingredients or in ways the leave the final dosage unknown to users precisely because consumers lack reliable information and any recourse.

The result is a drug war that does little to decrease consumption but makes drugs more dangerous. From 1971—two years before the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration—to 2007, the rate of death from a drug overdose per 100,000 total deaths increased by a factor of ten. And that spike occurred even before the recent surge in deaths from prescription opioids whose doses and contents users know.

Rather than sticking with failed federal prohibitions, Oregon’s law would follow a model closer to Portugal. In addition to offering treatment programs, Portugal decriminalized the possession of a 10-day supply of any drug—including hard drugs—in 2000.

Contrary to fears, Portuguese drug use did not explode. The number of overall drug users fell during the first 15 years of decriminalization and ebbs and flows with European trends now. The number of heroin addicts was cut in half, with most remaining addicts in a form of treatment. Meanwhile, drug overdose rates have fallen and Portugal’s overall drug-induced death rate is more than five times lower than the European Union average.

Cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and ecstasy are all more dangerous than marijuana. But prohibition makes these dangerous drugs even more dangerous. Oregon’s decriminalization bill is an important step in the right direction. Hopefully their decriminalization will start a new national trend much like their marijuana decriminalization did.


Benjamin Powell is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, Director of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University. He Independent Institute books include The Economics of Immigration: Market-Based Approaches, Social Science, and Public Policy, Housing America: Building out of Crisis, and Making Poor Nations Rich.


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  • MyGovCost.org
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  • OnPower.org
  • elindependent.org