Oregon decriminalized small amounts of drugs, but there was no significant increase in fatal overdoses.

Oregon decriminalized small amounts of drugs, but there was no significant increase in fatal overdoses.

Decriminalization of Drug Possession in Oregon: Study Finds No Evidence of Increased Overdose Deaths

Overdose Deaths

Critics of the law that decriminalized drug possession in Oregon have long blamed the policy for the recent rise in overdose deaths in the state. However, a groundbreaking new study has found no evidence to support this claim. Researchers discovered that, although drug overdose deaths have increased in Oregon, they do not appear to be directly linked to the law known as Measure 110.

Measure 110, passed by Oregon voters in 2020, decriminalized the possession of small amounts of previously illegal drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Instead of facing criminal charges, individuals caught with these substances now receive a citation and a fine. The fine can be waived if the person undergoes a health screening.

Some critics have attributed the increase in overdose deaths between 2021 and 2022 to Measure 110. However, the new study paints a different picture. While overdose deaths in Oregon have indeed risen, they have increased to a similar extent as in other U.S. states where drug possession remains a crime.

This finding offers some reassurance but also disappointment, according to senior researcher Corey Davis of the Center for Opioid Epidemiology and Policy at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Advocates of Measure 110 had hoped that decriminalization would lead to a decrease in overdose deaths. They believed that decriminalization would encourage people to call 911 during an overdose, as the fear of arrest would no longer be a deterrent. Additionally, keeping drug users out of jail, a known risk factor for fatal overdose, was seen as a potential benefit.

However, the study’s findings challenge these assumptions. “I don’t think these findings will make either side happy,” Davis said. “But that’s what we found.” Although the study cannot definitively explain why overdose deaths were not affected by the law, Davis suspects that the widespread presence of fentanyl might be a key contributing factor. Fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid, has been widely implicated in the escalating drug crisis across the United States.

According to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 106,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2021, with synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, being the primary cause. Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids increased sevenfold between 2015 and 2021. Davis explained that “Fentanyl is just so prevalent and so deadly. Any single intervention would have to make a huge impact to reduce overdose deaths.”

Judy Grisel, a professor of psychology at Bucknell University, expressed disappointment with the study findings. She remarked, “In this case, no news is not good news because the researchers failed to find evidence of reduced deaths from reducing arrests.”

However, the study has limitations regarding its timeframe. Decriminalization was implemented in 2021, and the researchers were only able to track the outcomes over the following year. Grisel added, “We don’t know whether the intended benefits will take more time to realize, or worse, will be offset by more use of lethal substances enabled by decriminalization.”

Measure 110 incorporated more than just the decriminalization of drug possession. It also allocated significant funding to improve access to substance abuse treatment. However, the rollout of these resources was slow, with most of the funds not being released until after the study period. Alexandria Macmadu, a substance use epidemiologist at Brown University School of Public Health, believes that an increase in treatment access and a reduction in overdose deaths can be expected in the future.

The study compared fatal overdoses in Oregon, where decriminalization occurred, with those in Washington state, which had also implemented a similar policy change but later reversed it. Additionally, the researchers compared the trends in these two states with a “control group” of other states. The results showed that decriminalization made no significant difference in overdose deaths.

Moreover, the research found a significant drop in arrests for drug possession after decriminalization in both Oregon and Washington, without an increase in arrests for violent crimes. This finding puts to rest another concern raised by opponents of decriminalization.

The implications of the study are yet to be fully understood, as decriminalization may be subject to amendments. A coalition of political and business leaders in Oregon has already filed two ballot measures to modify Measure 110.

In conclusion, the study provides valuable insights into the effects of decriminalizing drug possession in Oregon. While it appears that the law did not have a substantial impact on overdose deaths in the first year, further research is necessary to understand the long-term effects. Nonetheless, the findings challenge the assumption that decriminalization alone can address the complex underlying factors contributing to the drug crisis. By acknowledging the limitations of decriminalization and continuing efforts to improve access to treatment, we may be able to make progress in reducing overdose deaths and supporting individuals struggling with substance abuse.


  1. Corey Davis, JD, MSPH, assistant clinical professor, Center for Opioid Epidemiology and Policy, NYU Grossman School of Medicine, New York City
  2. Judy Grisel, PhD, professor, psychology and neuroscience, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pa.
  3. Alexandria Macmadu, PhD, postdoctoral research associate, epidemiology, Brown University School of Public Health, Providence, R.I.
  4. JAMA Psychiatry
  5. U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse – Treating Opioid Addiction

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This article does not provide medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. Consult a healthcare professional for personalized medical advice.