PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – A new study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that recent drug decriminalization laws in Oregon and Washington did not lead to changes in fatal drug overdose rates.
The study, published Wednesday, tracked fatal drug overdoses over a year in each state and found no “statistical significance” in the death rates from either state after the new drug policies were implemented.
Researchers conducted the study after Oregon voters passed Measure 110 in 2020, which later went into effect on February 1, 2021. Measure 110 decriminalized possession of drugs in favor of funding drug abuse treatment centers.
In Washington, researchers studied the fatal drug overdose rate after the February 25, 2021, state Supreme Court decision in State v Blake. The court ruled the state’s former drug possession law is unconstitutional. Because of the ruling, Washingtonians can ask a court to vacate a drug possession conviction from their record if it pre-dates the court’s decision.
“The hypothesis was that removing criminal penalties for drug possession may reduce fatal drug overdoses due to reduced incarceration and increased calls for help at the scene of an overdose,” the study said.
Haven Wheelock heads the harm reduction program at Outside In and co-authored the study as a local source. She was also one of the three people who originally filed the initiative for Measure 110 in August of 2019.
“We are talking about human beings and we are talking about human lives,” she said.
She said the rise in fatal overdoses, especially with fentanyl becoming more available, is a crisis seen nationwide – not just in Oregon and Washington. She adds that “if our approach was the problem, it wouldn’t be a problem anywhere else.”
“When stuff is so hard and so tragic, it is so easy to want to be able to blame one thing, because if it was just one thing, then we could fix it,” Wheelock said.
Researchers used a synthetic control method, comparing fatal overdose death rates in Oregon from February 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022, after the implementation of Measure 110. For Washington, JAMA tracked fatal overdoses, after the State v. Blake decision, from March 1, 2021, to March 21, 2022.
Oregon and Washington’s fatal overdose rates were compared to rates in the other 48 states and the District of Columbia, which did not implement similar drug policies.
“Following the implementation of Measure 110, absolute monthly rate differences between Oregon and its synthetic control were not statistically significant (probability = 0.26). The average rate difference post Measure 110 was 0.268 fatal drug overdoses per 100 000 state population,” the study said.
JAMA furthered, “following the implementation of the policy change in Washington, the absolute monthly rate differences between Washington and synthetic Washington were not statistically significant (probability = 0.06). The average rate difference post-Blake was 0.112 fatal drug overdoses per 100 000 state population.”
While the study looked into changes in fatal overdose rates in a one-year period after drug decriminalization laws were passed, JAMA notes further research needs to be done on the long-term impacts of the laws.
“Addiction is a complex problem with many causes, with many solutions, and we need all of them on the table,” Wheelock said.
The study comes after an Emerson College Polling survey found a majority of surveyed Oregon voters support repealing Measure 110. Additionally, Oregon lawmakers announced they will hold hearings to consider changes to local drug policies, including Measure 110.
Wheelock said that when Measure 110 funds begin to go toward drug abuse treatment centers as was intended, the numbers will eventually trend downward.
“Is it a full system yet? Absolutely not,” she said. “Is it closer than it was three years ago? Absolutely.”