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Vital Strategies’ Statement on Oregon’s Historic Drug Decriminalization Initiative and President Elect Biden’s Plan to End Overdose

For Immediate Release:
Oregon voters made history on election day when they approved an initiative to decriminalize small amount of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Oregon has eliminated criminal penalties for personal possession and will no longer arrest and incarcerate people for small amounts of drugs. The law will also fund treatment programs from a marijuana sales tax. 

Voters also chose Joe Biden as President this election. President elect Biden has called for an end of incarceration for drug use alone, instead wanting to divert people to drug courts and treatment. 

Statement from Daliah Heller, Director of Drug Initiatives, Vital Strategies: 

“Oregon voters got it right – drug use should be a public health issue rather than a crime. In decriminalizing all drug use, Oregon is leaving  failed and punitive approaches behind and paving the way towards a healthier, more just future. More states are sure to follow.  

The criminalization of drug use is a direct cause of the overdose epidemic in this country, which claimed a record 72,000 lives last year and is escalating faster than ever during the COVID pandemic. The criminalization of drug use has filled our jails and prisons with people who use drugs, meting out harsh punishment and reinforcing stigma against them, while exacerbating their vulnerability to overdose. Many decades of this approach have had especially disastrous consequences for Black and Latinx communities, who are disproportionately targeted, despite the fact that drug use is similar across racial and ethnic lines. 

“It is encouraging, too, to see President-elect Biden recognize that prison is no place for people who struggle with drugs, and call instead for treatment. Science-based treatment should be accessible and available on demand to all who want it, but it must be non-coercive and non-punitive. Relapse is common for people who struggle with substances, and drug courts should not be imprisoning or otherwise punishing anyone for drug use. We need to invest in a supportive health-based response to drug use, not a punitive one.

“As a public health organization, Vital Strategies recognizes the enormous importance of drug use decriminalization for reducing drug-related morbidity and mortality in the United States, and ending the health and social harms of incarceration for drug use. We urge our public health colleagues to join us in the work to decriminalize drug use. This is a public health issue.” 

About Vital Strategies   

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We work with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Our goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible.  

To find out more, please visit www.vitalstrategies.org or Twitter @VitalStrat.  

About Vital Strategies’ Overdose Prevention Program  

In November 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $50 million investment to address the country’s overdose crisis. The initiative—a first-of-its-kind partnership between Vital Strategies, Pew Charitable Trusts, CDC Foundation, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health—is helping up to 10 states implement solutions over three years to strengthen and scale up evidence-based, data-driven interventions to reduce risks of overdose and save lives.

Media Contacts:  

Tony Newman tnewman@vitalstrategies.org; 646-335-5384 
Gloria Malone gmalone@vitalstrategies.org; 917-434-7644