In a first in the US, Oregon has rejected charging drug users with criminal offences, with voters passing a ballot measure that decriminalises possession of heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, oxycodone and other hard drugs.
"Today's victory is a landmark declaration that the time has come to stop criminalising people for drug use," said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which was behind the measure. "Measure 110 is arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date."
The measure completely changes how Oregon's justice system treats those who are found with personal-use amounts of hard drugs.
Instead of going to trial and facing possible jail time, a person would have the option of paying a US$100 fine or attending new "addiction recovery centres" funded by millions of dollars of tax revenue from Oregon's legalised, regulated cannabis industry.
The passage of the measure makes Oregon, which in 1973 became the first state to decriminalise cannabis possession, a pioneer in America in trying the same with hard drugs. The measure takes effect 30 days after Tuesday's election, but the punishment changes don't take effect until February 1. Addiction recovery centres must be available by October 1.
It may sound like a radical concept, but the initiative's backers said making criminals out of drug users — locking them up and burdening them with criminal records that made it difficult to find housing and jobs — was not working.
One in 11 Oregonians is addicted to drugs, and nearly two people die every day from overdoses in the state, the Oregon Nurses Association, the Oregon Chapter American College of Physicians and the Oregon Academy of Family Physicians had said in support of the measure.
"We urgently need a change to save families and save lives," they wrote.
About 3700 fewer Oregonians per year will be convicted of felony or misdemeanour possession of controlled substances now that the measure has passed, according to estimates by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.
The measure will also likely lead to significant reductions in racial and ethnic disparities in both convictions and arrests, the commission, which is an official state agency, said.
While this approach is new in the United States, several countries, including Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland, have already decriminalised possession of small amounts of hard drugs, according to the United Nations.
Portugal's 2000 decriminalisation brought no surge in drug use. Drug deaths fell while the number of people treated for drug addiction in the country rose 20 per cent from 2001 to 2008 and then stabilised, Portuguese officials have said.
"This is such a big step in moving to a health-based approach instead of criminal punishment, and we're devoting significant new resources to help Oregonians who need it," said Janie Gullickson, co-chief petitioner of Measure 110.
The measure was being approved by 59 per cent of roughly two million votes counted so far, according to the secretary of state's office.
Two dozen district attorneys said the measure was reckless and would lead to an increase in the acceptability of dangerous drugs. Two other district attorneys, including the one in Oregon's most populous county and that includes Portland, backed the measure, as did a district attorney-elect.
The measure does not apply retroactively to past convictions. But the Drug Policy Alliance said it would champion any effort through the Legislature to expunge those criminal records, citing a bill lawmakers passed last year that allows for cannabis convictions to be set aside.
"We and coalition partners will work to ensure that records will be expunged in the future," said Theshia Naidoo, the Drug Policy Alliance's managing director of legal affairs.
Oregon voters on Tuesday also legalised therapeutic use of psilocybin mushrooms, with a two-year development period. War veterans with PTSD, terminally ill patients and others suffering from anxiety had voiced support.
The measure requires the Oregon Health Authority to allow licensed, regulated production and possession of psilocybin, exclusively for administration by licensed facilitators to clients.
Before Tuesday's elections, Oregon was among 11 states as well as Washington, DC, that had legalised cannabis.
Several other states are following suit. Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota all approved ballot measures on Tuesday legalising cannabis for adults.
In New Zealand, a vote to legalise cannabis failed, but there is a small chance that special votes due tomorrow could tip the balance.
- Associated Press