Articles

Oregon’s Drug Decriminalization Disaster

It turns out, the human condition requires accountability, not absolution, from the state. 

04/25/24

John Stonestreet

French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau famously wrote that “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau believed that (to put it in less elegant twenty-first century language) human beings are born “basically good,” and that it is society, including social rules and institutions, that “corrupt” us. 

Though Oregon Governor Tina Kotek did not quote Rousseau earlier this month when she signed a new law to recriminalize drug possession in her state, she might as well have. Rousseau’s ideas remain influential today, and the unmitigated disaster of Oregon’s drug policies over the last few years is a fascinating example. 

In 2020, Oregon voters passed Measure 110, which decriminalized the possession of small amounts of lethal narcotics, including cocaine and fentanyl. Anyone caught with the drugs could accept a $100 fine, or they could avoid the fine by agreeing to call an addiction hotline and be connected to a recovery program. The idea behind Measure 110 is that because people who are addicted to drugs struggle with mental health problems, they should not be “stigmatized” by being prosecuted. Or, to paraphrase Rousseau, every addict is free to be clean, but the criminal justice system is keeping him from recovery. 

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Meta, was among those who found that line of argument persuasive. He donated $500,000 to the Measure 110 campaign. It passed with 58% of the vote. 

The law went into effect in February 2021. By the end of the year, overdose deaths in Oregon nearly doubled from the year before. The number was even higher the following year. Violent crime rose in Portland, even while decreasing nationwide. Residents reported people using drugs openly on city streets, and businesses were forced to hire private security. 

And about that hotline that was supposed to connect drug users with recovery services? In three years, 130 people cited under Measure 110 for drug possession called the number, or less than 2% of the 7,600 people caught with drugs. Fewer than 20 asked to be connected with recovery services. 

Still, when Governor Kotek signed the law this month to recriminalize drug possession, she characterized the failure of Measure 110 as an implementation problem. State officials and media outlets argued that recovery centers were not given enough money 

The argument that it is demeaning to hold people accountable for their bad decisions and dangerous behaviors is based on a false view of the human condition. In this view, humans are socially conditioned rather than moral agents who bear both the capacity and the dignity to decide. A criminal justice system that is only punitive, and which fails to consider mental illness and social background, is also dehumanizing. Humans are moral creatures who live in consequential relationships with other moral creatures. So, in determining how best to handle crimes and their punishments, the state must consider all parties involved, the harm that is done to them, and how trust can be rebuilt when it has been broken. This was the basis for Chuck Colson’s 2001 book Justice That Restores: Why Our Justice System Doesn’t Work and the Only Method of True Reform. 

To hold people accountable for their actions and decisions, and especially for the harm done to others, even in view of the difficulties and mental struggles that contributed, is to treat them and others with dignity. After all, isn’t a common refrain from those who overcome addiction just how important it was for them to face the consequences of their decisions and acknowledge those they hurt? Drug addiction is a powerful and profoundly hard thing to overcome. To say that is not demeaning, but to offer a $100 bribe is.  

The policy failure in Oregon is just further evidence that Rousseau got it wrong. Human beings are in bondage to sin and in need of God’s grace. As social creatures, we need the kind of legal accountability that reflects what is true about the kind of creatures humans are.  

For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org. 

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