Study Finds Decriminalising Drug Possession is Not Linked to Higher Overdose Death Rates in Oregon

In the past few months, several news outlets have looked into an Oregon rule that let some people have small amounts of controlled substances like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine without getting in trouble. There was information in the stories that made it seem like the law might be to blame for the continued rise in overdose deaths.

A new study from the NYU Grossman School of Medicine was published online today in JAMA Psychiatry. It suggests that there is no link between drug decriminalisation and fatal drug overdose rates in Oregon and Washington, two states that did this in early 2021.

They worked together with the Center for Opioid Epidemiology and Policy at NYU Langone, the Network for Public Health Law, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to come up with the results. The study team wanted to find out if the number of overdose deaths in either state changed in the first year after ending or partially ending drug possession laws.

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Supporters of decriminalisation say that laws like the ones passed in Oregon and Washington will lead to more calls for help from people who are having or seeing an overdose and less jail time, which is linked to fatal overdoses. On the other hand, critics say that making it less illegal to have small amounts of drugs could lead to more drug use and deadly overdoses. There was no proof for either outcome in the first year after the policy change, according to this study.

Corey Davis, JD, MSPH, senior investigator for the study and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, said, “Our analysis suggests that state decriminalisation policies do not lead to increases in overdose deaths.” Davis is also a member of the Center for Opioid Epidemiology and Policy.

Davis and his colleagues released another study last month that found that Oregon and Washington’s policies to decriminalise drugs led to a huge drop in arrests for drug possession but not more arrests for violent crimes. “These two studies show that Oregon and Washington’s drug decriminalisation laws cut down on arrests but did not raise the number of overdose deaths.” All of these results show that drug users and maybe even their neighbourhoods are less likely to get hurt, said Davis.

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Decriminalisation and other harm reduction measures are being looked at more and more by policymakers and public health experts as ways to stop the rising number of opioid overdose deaths in the US. Most of these deaths are caused by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and is involved in about two-thirds of all overdoses in the US. Every year, more than 100,000 people still die from drug accidents.

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