As Augusta considers a bill to decriminalize the possession of all drugs and restructure Maine’s treatment system, legislators ought to learn from the unintended consequences of a similar policy experiment in Oregon. Given that Maine’s response to the drug crisis is working, the adoption of this unproven policy is unwarranted.

In 2020, Oregon passed Measure 110, the nation’s first experiment with the decriminalization of all drugs, including cocaine, meth and fentanyl. Far from achieving a reduction in overdose deaths or even a stabilization, evidence suggests Measure 110 has made the situation worse.

The number of overdose deaths in Oregon increased 75% from 2020 to 2022, compared to 18% nationally. Between 2021 and 2022, Oregon was one of only three states that reported an increased rate of nonfatal overdose emergency department visits. The number of people experiencing homelessness increased, and public drug use is now rampant. The rate of violent crime increased in Oregon despite decreasing nationally.

Not surprisingly, support for decriminalization has fallen. A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of Oregonians want to repeal parts of Measure 110 and reinstate penalties for the possession of drugs.

In turn, Democratic and Republican legislators in Oregon have introduced separate proposals to backtrack and reverse these feel-good drug policies. Gov. Tina Kotek declared a state of emergency due to the state’s drug crisis. There is bipartisan agreement that decriminalization has been a failure.

Yet, following the introduction of L.D. 1975, Maine risks making the same mistakes as Oregon.


Defending L.D. 1975, its sponsor, Rep. Lydia Crafts, argued: “What … the state has been doing isn’t working.” This is strange, given that Maine is moving in the right direction and doing better than most states.

The number of overdose deaths in Maine decreased 13.6% between the first 11 months of 2022 and the first 11 months of 2023. Likewise, nonfatal overdoses decreased 4.4% over that same period. Only one of Maine’s 16 counties was above the national average for the rate of nonfatal overdoses in 2023.

Though a central claim of supporters of decriminalization in Oregon was that “Oregon ranks nearly last out of the 50 states in access to treatment,” in 2021, Maine ranked as the 15th-best in the nation in this regard. Beyond that, Maine was below the national average for the percentage of treatment facilities that had more than 120 individuals – and above the average for median length of stay for many treatment services – suggesting that treatment capacity is not a major issue.

According to the same Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration rankings, Maine has the 13th-highest percentage of outpatient treatment facilities that offered methadone, buprenorphine or naltrexone, which are forms of medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder. Maine also has the fifth-highest rate of opioid treatment clients that received medication-assisted treatment – behind only Vermont, Rhode Island, Maryland and Connecticut.

Rather than replacing the existing legislative framework with one that has failed in Oregon, policymakers should improve the current system. For example, Maine has the second-lowest percentage of treatment facilities that conduct outreach to individuals who may need treatment, at 49.3%. Even so, outcomes like this can be improved without decriminalizing all drugs.

It is worth noting that there is a false dichotomy between incarceration and decriminalization. In fact, the criminalization of drug use does not necessarily conflict with the provision of treatment for drug use, such as with treatment courts, which provide an alternative to incarceration.

When testifying against L.D. 1975 in January, Gordon Smith, the director of opioid response in Gov. Mills’ administration, said: “We continue to review the decriminalization experience in Oregon,” noting that the decriminalization proposal was “unrealistic in its goals and is impractical in its approach.”

Indeed, Maine should look to Oregon as a cautionary tale and not repeat its mistakes.

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