It was at a Drug Policy Alliance conference in Phoenix last October that Tera Hurst, executive director at Health Justice Recovery Alliance, got a feel for the impact Measure 110 was having outside of Oregon. 

Hurst was on a panel with a presenter from the Philippines, who, to Hurst’s surprise, focused a significant amount of her presentation on Oregon. 

“It just kind of floored me,” Hurst said. 

When they spoke, Hurst said the woman told her that what Oregon was doing was “so important” to people very far away. “‘Any kind of way that we can be changing the United States, War on Drugs kind of influence, the better,’” Hurst said the woman told her. “That was pretty intense.” 

At future conferences, panelists may be discussing Oregon for very different reasons. At the beginning of April, Gov. Tina Kotek signed a law effectively overturning the voter-approved drug decriminalization policy that has consistently made the state national headlines since it went into effect three years ago.

Under HB 4002, people caught in possession of small amounts of illegal drugs like fentanyl will again face up to six months in jail—though offenders will be offered the opportunity to pursue drug treatment rather than receive criminal penalties and be able to have their records expunged.

The new law is more progressive than the law on small possession that was in place prior to the passage of Measure 110, but it remains a firm step away from a groundbreaking approach that put Oregon on the cutting edge of global drug policy when voters overwhelmingly passed the decriminalization measure in 2020. 

When Measure 110 passed, with the support of the state Democratic Party and a number of leading unions and civil rights organizations, Oregon became the first state in the country to effectively decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs—breaking radically with the hegemonic understanding that drug use is a criminal matter rather than a matter of public health.

The move put Oregon in the spotlight both around the country and beyond, with a number of drug policy experts, activists, and politicians watching to see whether, as with death with dignity, mail-in voting, and land use policy, an approach first tested in Oregon could be exportable to the rest of the country. 

Even in the arena of drug policy, Oregon has long been on the cutting edge: Oregon was the first state to decriminalize possession of marijuana back in 1973 and among the first states to fully legalize marijuana in 2014. 

But that is not what happened with Measure 110. Instead, after a slow rollout marked by bottlenecks at the state level, right-wing forces and national media outlets framed the state’s experience in stark terms: asserting that Oregon implemented a radical policy, and, acknowledging it as a failure, quickly reversed course.

In March, a story in The Atlantic claimed that “America’s most radical experiment with drug decriminalization has ended, after more than three years of painful results.” The New York Times wrote that Kotek signed HB 4002 after “a deluge of overdose deaths and frequent chaos in the streets of Portland.”

That framing—directly and inaccurately linking Measure 110 to opioid overdose and crime rates in the state—has frustrated backers of the law who point to macro factors like the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the arrival of fentanyl on the West Coast as driving factors in the state’s visible suffering. 

Still, Hurst believes that people around the country should view Oregon as an important test case when sizing up their own approaches to decriminalization. 

“I hope that Oregon can really be a good example,” Hurst said. “We can learn from what went well and what we could have done better and what we need to sustain long-term decriminalization—not quick wins.”

Part of the lesson may be about the importance of scaling up behavioral health infrastructure prior to launching a decriminalization—though Kellen Russoniello, senior policy counsel at Drug Policy Alliance, pointed out that waiting to scale up that infrastructure before acting to decriminalize may in practice mean “pushing off decrim indefinitely.” 

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, in an interview with the Times, suggested that “with the benefit of hindsight, the way [the law] should have been structured is that it would create the mechanism for funding. The state would build up its behavioral health services, and when it reached a certain threshold, then they would decriminalize. It shouldn’t have gone the other way around.”

But part of the lesson, too, may simply be that states looking to implement decriminalization policies may need to get luckier than the proponents of Measure 110 in Oregon did. 

Oregon implemented Measure 110 in the throes of the pandemic and the fentanyl crisis—the same factors that, Hurst said, contributed to the recall of former District Attorney Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and the electoral success of moderate and conservative candidates in Seattle. 

Despite the political headwinds, Russoniello said that discussions about decriminalization are ongoing in places like Vermont, New York, Washington, California, and Illinois—discussions that, as they move forward, may be shaped by the Oregon experience. 

“There has been legislation introduced,” Russoniello said. “Most of it hasn’t moved very far, but in terms of whether or not Oregon has really impacted those efforts—Oregon is part of the conversation, but I would say that I think a bigger factor here is a more global shift in the political winds in terms of going back to a tough-on-crime mentality.”

A number of the relatively few Democratic legislators who voted against HB 4002 expressed frustration with that shift—particularly in a state that had moved so decisively against it less than four years ago. 

Sen. Kayse Jama, who represents a district that includes East Portland, wrote in a statement explaining his opposition to the bill, saying the passage of Measure 110 represented Oregonians’ “moral and practical objections to the logic of the war on drugs” that has disproportionately impacted communities of color. 

“I still believe in this vision of Oregon—an Oregon that embraces structural change,” Jama wrote. “We must re-envision our criminal justice system in its entirety.”

How Oregon goes about that work—or retreats from it—will reverberate outside of the state, just as the passage of Measure 110 did.

“We may have state lines and we may be most accountable for making sure that our state is healthy and we’re investing in it and we’re creating policies that make sense for us, but we’re part of the United States,” Hurst said. “Our actions have implications both good and bad outside of our borders, and we can’t operate like it’s only about us.”

It remains to be seen if Oregon’s turn away from decriminalization will set back similar efforts in other places. Russoniello, for one, believes the state’s pathbreaking contribution won’t be forgotten.

“I think Oregon will go down, still, as a pioneer—the first state that passed a ballot measure in support of decriminalization,” Russoniello said. “I do imagine in 50 years that decrim will be much more pervasive across the country, and I think people will look back at Oregon and say they really helped move the ball forward.”