Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Massachusetts bills to decriminalize all drugs move to study phase

Although unlikely to succeed, the step marks another instance of states looking to decriminalize possession and use of drugs, following in the footsteps of Oregon.
Boston skyline
Boston, Masschusetts The Associated Press/ Michael Dwyer

Story at a glance

  • Drug decriminalization in the United States is a highly contested topic. 

  • While some critics argue the measure enables users and proliferates drug use, supporters see the measure as a more humane alternative to drug-related incarceration.

  • As a pair of bills proposed in Massachusetts move into the research phase, some feel their prospects of becoming law are slight.

In 2020, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize possession of all drugs for personal use. The following year, New York, Virginia and other states began exploring the idea, and now legislators in Massachusetts have expressed interest in researching the effects of such a proposal, although a final law is unlikely to materialize.

Senate bill 1277 and House bill 2119 were both introduced in 2021 and received a recent stamp of approval from the state’s Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use, and Recovery in June. This gave the go-ahead for these bills to be passed onto the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. 

The combined bills make up an “An Act relative to harm reduction and racial equality.” The Health Care Financing Committee has since referred it to a study order, allowing for more research to be conducted on the measure. A narrative report will ultimately be filed based on these findings. 

However, the vast majority of bills sent to a study order do not progress further, and one of the bills’ sponsors, Sen. Julian Cyr (D) expressed doubt about its future.

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Regardless, the fact that the bills have progressed this far mark one more step forward for advocates who say decriminalizing all drugs will lead to lower incarceration rates and help reverse some of the long-standing negative effects of President Nixon’s War on Drugs. 

In 2001, Portugal instituted a decriminalization policy for small amounts of drug possession and use that has served as a model for similar proposals in the United States. A 2015 report from the Drug Policy Alliance found “After nearly a decade and a half, Portugal has experienced no major increases in drug use. Yet it has seen reduced rates of problematic and adolescent drug use, fewer people arrested and incarcerated for drugs, reduced incidence of HIV/AIDS, reduced drug induced deaths, and a significant increase in the number of people receiving treatment.”

The alliance also backed successful decriminalization efforts in Oregon.

Alongside the policy, Portuguese officials worked to expand treatment and harm reduction services, including improving access to sterile syringes and medication-assisted therapies.

In Oregon, the effects of the policy have been mixed. The bill was originally designed to use the money saved from decriminalization efforts to fund addiction recovery centers. But so far only 1 percent of those who received citations for possession asked for help via a hotline. Proponents of the measure point to the millions of dollars that have been directed toward treatment facilities. 

Since the law took effect in February 2021, emergency room visits for opioid overdoses have increased, with some attributing this rise to the heightened presence of opioids in the community. 

Portugal’s approach to promoting and enrolling drug users in treatment programs are also stricter than those enforced in Oregon. 

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