March 4, 2024 - 1:15pm

In 2020, Oregon became the first US state to decriminalise the possession of small amounts of hard drugs, including heroin. The law, known as Measure 110, was passed by ballot (i.e. a referendum) with 58% of voters in favour. Four years on, the law has just been repealed following a growing backlash against a surge in crime, antisocial behaviour and overdose deaths.

If Oregon’s radical experiment was a famous victory for the liberalisers, then its unravelling is a severe setback. Indeed, it may be a turning point in the war against the war on drugs.

Of course, there are rival explanations for the situation in Oregon: the impact of Covid-19 and lockdowns, elevated levels of lawlessness after the George Floyd protests, the housing crisis, and — most obviously — the opioid epidemic. However, these factors have been felt across America.

So which of the 50 states suffered the highest increase in opioid deaths? It was, of course, Oregon, where fatalities rose by 1,530% since 2020. It turns out that fostering a culture of public drug abuse and addiction is a really bad way of preparing for the depredations of the fentanyl trade. 

It’s a lesson to the rest of the world, especially countries with reason to fear that the opioid crisis is heading their way. Fentanyl is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year. But across Europe, the death toll is measured in mere hundreds. That’s not because European drug users are more discerning, nor European drug dealers more ethical; rather, the difference comes down to a hugely underappreciated factor in drug policy, which is availability. 

As regards synthetic opioids, Europe has yet to be flooded. But that could soon change. Fentanyl isn’t just potent, with effects 50 times stronger than heroin: it is also cheaply manufactured, readily transported and easily added to other drugs. From a European point of view, it is a public health catastrophe waiting to happen.

Those on the progressive side of the drugs debate were, until very recently, on the front foot. For instance, the former lord chancellor, Charlie Falconer, could call for the legalisation of all drugs without being being run out of town on a rail. Indeed, he received a respectful hearing.

Though ministers haven’t rushed toward total decriminalisation, bien pensant opinion leans in favour of liberalisation. When the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, set up his London Drugs Commission in 2022, he asked Falconer to chair it. 

And yet, almost two years later, the Mayor isn’t exactly rushing out its conclusions. Could it be that the experience of Oregon, and other liberal states, is giving him pause for thought? After all, there aren’t many votes for replicating the degradation of Portland and San Francisco on the streets of London. To give another example, Portugal — once a place of pilgrimage for reformers and the inspiration for Measure 110 — isn’t looking so good these days.

In any case, fentanyl is a game-changer. Even if the principle of respecting individual autonomy extends all the way to hard drugs, there are limits. In this case, the duty of prohibition cannot be shirked.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.