Aftermath of Drug Decriminalization in Oregon
The Aftermath of Drug Decriminalization in Oregon
May 21, 2024

Why Decriminalization Was Proposed

On the surface, decriminalization sounds like it could be a strong approach to tackling illicit drug use, addiction, and crime. The drug prohibition movement – an approach to reducing substance use by prohibiting it entirely and punishing those who use it – was rooted in the “war on drugs” that has been ongoing since 1971.

However, research has demonstrated that the threat of punishment and incarceration is not an effective deterrent against crime, and that people who use drugs are not overly deterred by prohibitive or punitive tactics and will generally continue to do so regardless. So, a new approach was needed.

The Introduction of Measure 110

Oregon proposed Measure 110 in November 2020, which posited that possession of all drugs be decriminalized, with a focus on treatment and rehabilitation of individuals rather than punishment. This measure mainly related to amounts of possession for personal use, while large quantities indicating potential trafficking remained criminalized.

Funding for law enforcement was redirected to resources such as treatment, naloxone distribution, housing, and jobs, and penalties for large quantity possession were reduced. The goal was to ultimately reduce the harm experienced by those using drugs and improve accessibility to resources, supports, and services that may help those experiencing addiction to move towards recovery.

Many Oregon voters were in favour of the passing of Measure 110, but those who voted against it cited concerns of potential increased overdoses, drug usage, and drug-related crimes. Contrarily, criminalization itself increases overdose risk.

How Decriminalization Played Out

The movement of Measure 110 was well-intentioned, but it did not pan out in the extravagant and obviously successful ways many hoped it would. While it did serve to prevent the arrests of thousands of people, there are concerns that the risks did not outweigh the benefits.

Given the experimental nature of Measure 110, it was unfortunately used as a scapegoat for many drug and crime-related issues in Oregon for its duration, making it an easy target for criticism despite its wins.

While it is difficult to determine the relationship between Measure 110 and overdose rates, as we cannot fully know how many overdoses there would have been without this measure in place, one study indicated Measure 110 being responsible for 182 additional overdoses in 2021, a 23% increase that is predicted to not have occurred had Oregon not moved forward with decriminalization.

In contrary, two other studies (here and here) were not able to find any indication that Measure 110 had a significant effect on the rate of fatal overdoses in Oregon and Washington.

Oregon Criminal Defense Attorney, Ryan Corbridge, talked briefly about the results of the Measure.

“Decriminalization resulted in law enforcement not engaging with those addicted and therefore many of them ended up reoffending and not getting the help that they needed.”

Findings for this topic are mixed, with some failing to account for the presence of fentanyl in the mainstream drug supply – an extremely potent drug sometimes added to other drugs that is related to a significant number of overdoses.

On a more positive note, The Measure 110 Data Report for Quarters 1 and 2 indicates an increase in individuals seeking support and treatment, accessing housing, community engagement, and new program development.

However, this report also acknowledges challenges faced by workers in the field, including cultural competency of staff, barriers to accessing and providing employment and housing, retaining staff, stigma, difficulties with sourcing supplies, and limited treatment options.

Where Does Measure 110 Stand Now?

As of March 2024, Oregon is in the process of repealing Measure 110 and returning to mandating treatment for individuals charged with drug-related crimes. While more than half of voters were in favor of decriminalization initially, recent polls indicate that more than half now want it repealed.  

Rather than see it as a failed attempt, it should be understood in the context of the full picture: since the implementation of Measure 110 in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic alongside inflation and housing scarcity has led to an increase in homelessness, poverty, and has been taxing on the healthcare system.

These things are all intricately linked to drug use and addiction, and all contribute to the circumstances in which decriminalization may not have had the impressive impact and change ability that it was expected to.


To summarize, Measure 110 was implemented as a harm-reduction and rehabilitation-focused approach to the drug epidemic in Oregon. It had goals of increasing community supports to those facing addiction, joblessness, and homelessness, which it accomplished through the redirection of funding from law enforcement.

In the three-and-a-half years that it remained in place, it helped many individuals to seek out and access supports that they may have not otherwise, prevented many prison sentences for possession, and potentially saved lives.

The circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic and an ever-growing number of homeless individuals and individuals struggling with addiction make it difficult to assess the full impact of Measure 110, as there are many other competing factors when looking at addiction and homelessness.

The fact that Measure 110 was not a magic band-aid fix and required significant funding instilled doubt in many, especially when overdose rates did not decrease. However, despite the amount of funding poured into these resources and supports such as detox facilities and addictions counsellors, a recent study indicated that Oregon is still years away from being able to treat everyone who needs it. This means that to promptly treat all Oregon residents who need addictions services, even more funding than Measure 110 provided would be necessary. Thus, repealing decriminalization of what was previously considered drug crime and returning to a system that was also not working has some people frustrated and concerned. Rather than repeal it entirely, critics state that the measure should instead be improved and modified.