Oregon approves some of the biggest drug policy rollbacks in the nation

On Tuesday, voters in four states legalized recreational marijuana. They legalized medical marijuana in two others. 

Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative to decriminalize all drugs, including cocaine, heroin and meth. That doesn’t mean those drugs are legal now. It means that if people possess small amounts of them, they won’t go to jail but instead pay a small fine or go to a free recovery center.

Much of the motivation behind Measure 110, the initiative that decriminalizes the possession of drugs, were efforts to help end the “war on drugs.” That’s according to German Lopez, senior correspondent for Vox focused on criminal justice, guns and drugs.

“What that really means for a lot of people ... is ending the criminal justice system's role in the war on drugs [by] making this a public health issue, something that's dealt with as an addiction treatment in hospitals and so on, but not through prison and jail,” he says.

Compared to the rest of the nation, he notes, Oregon has had particularly little funding for addiction treatment, and the new initiative is expected to help fix that. 

Oregon also voted to legalize the therapeutic use of psilocybin mushrooms, or magic mushrooms. According to Lopez, some studies have suggested they can help people with PTSD and anxiety. As a result, the initiative will allow the use of magic mushrooms under clinical supervision.

But Lopez says the measure was opposed by the American Psychiatric Association and the Oregon Psychiatric Physicians Association, partly because the Food and Drug Administration is studying these drugs.

“These drugs actually are already on clinical trials. ... It's possible that regardless of what Oregon did here, these medications could have been approved for national use in a few years,” Lopez says. “To put this in front of state voters, it's certainly an unusual way to approve medications.”

He says that over the last decade, activists have made strides to help decriminalize marijuana, and it might inspire others to decriminalize drugs in other states.

Moving forward, Lopez says the general public is growing increasingly comfortable with the decriminalization and legalization of some drugs, but elected officials are still hesitant to take that stance. 

“It's just a really strange dichotomy where the public is way ahead on this issue in terms of legalizing it than politicians,” Lopez says.