Oregon Drug Laws: Legalized vs. Decriminalized Drugs

Oregon is a trailblazer when it comes to drug policy reform. Learn about the state's legalization of marijuana and psilocybin and failed decriminalization of hard drugs like heroin and cocaine.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated 4/03/2024

In the United States, drugs are regulated by both state and federal law. The federal government classifies drugs according to their legitimate use, and it strictly prohibits the possession, use, or distribution of drugs deemed to have a high potential for abuse or dependence and no recognized medical value. States don't always agree with the federal scheme of permitted and outlawed drugs. For example, lawmakers and voters in Oregon are experimenting with alternatives to drug prohibition: legalization and decriminalization.

Here's what you need to know about the difference between legalizing and decriminalizing drugs and Oregon's approach to marijuana, psilocybin, and so-called "street drugs" like heroin and cocaine.

Legal Drugs in Oregon

Most state and federal drug laws are criminal. If you possess even a small amount of drugs you can be punished with jail or prison and a fine. Civil liability, on the other hand, involves some kind of financial penalty, but no threat of incarceration.

Oregon is experimenting with shifting away from a criminal approach toward a public health approach to drug laws, beginning with marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms. On a federal level, however, marijuana and hallucinogens like psilocybin remain illegal.

To learn more about the tension between federal and state drug laws, check out Medical Marijuana and Federal Law.

Medical Marijuana

Oregon was one of the first states to authorize the use of marijuana for medical treatment in 1998. In Oregon, patients with a recommendation from a licensed physician can use marijuana to treat qualifying health conditions. The list of qualifying health conditions is broad. Physicians can recommend marijuana to treat specific conditions like cancer or PTSD or any condition that causes severe pain, nausea, or muscle spasms.

Qualified patients must get a medical marijuana card from the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP). Patients can possess up to 24 ounces of usable marijuana for personal use and up to 6 mature or 12 immature marijuana plants.

(Or. Rev. Stat. Chapter 475C (2024).)

Recreational Marijuana

In Oregon, it's legal for adults (21 and older) to buy, possess, and use marijuana for recreation within certain limits. Limits vary depending on whether users possess marijuana in public or on private property. Recreational marijuana can't be consumed in public, even by those of legal age.

Even though some recreational marijuana use is legal in Oregon, employers and landlords may still restrict the use of it at work and in rental properties.

How Much Marijuana Can Adults Have?

Oregon law limits the amount of recreational marijuana that adults may possess at any one time to no more than:

  • 4 plants
  • 2 ounces of usable marijuana (dried leaves and flowers) in a public place
  • 8 ounces of usable marijuana in a private place
  • 16 ounces of cannabinoid products in solid form or cannabinoid concentrates purchased from a licensed marijuana retailer
  • 72 ounces of cannabinoid product in liquid form, and
  • 1 ounce of cannabinoid extracts.

    (Or. Rev. Stat. § 475C.337 (2024).)

    What Are the Penalties for Unlawful Possession of Recreational Marijuana in Oregon?

    Penalties for unlawful possession of marijuana in Oregon vary based on the age of the person who possessed it and the quantity possessed.

    People 21 and Over: Adults who possess no more than four times the limits set by Oregon law can be charged with a Class B misdemeanor. Adults who are caught with substantial amounts of marijuana (more than 16 times the limits, more than eight pounds of usable marijuana in public, or more than one-quarter ounce of cannabinoid extract that wasn't purchased from a licensed retailer) can be charged with a Class C felony. All other violations are Class A misdemeanors. (Or. Rev. Stat. § 475C.337 (2024).)

    People Under 21: People under 21 who are caught with any amount of marijuana can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. If they are caught with substantial amounts of marijuana they can be charged with a Class C felony. (Or. Rev. Stat. § 475C.341 (2024).)

    Learn more about Oregon Misdemeanors by Class and Crime and Oregon Felony Crimes by Class and Sentences.

    Therapeutic Psilocybin Mushrooms

    In November 2020, Oregon became the first state to allow the use of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient of hallucinogenic mushrooms, for therapy. Ballot Measure 109 directed the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to develop a program to allow licensed service providers to administer psilocybin-producing mushroom products to individuals 21 years of age or older.

    Psilocybin won't be available to purchase and take home. Only license holders will be able to cultivate psilocybin, provide therapy, or own a psilocybin service center.

    Studies have shown that psilocybin is an effective treatment for mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, addiction, and end-of-life psychological distress. Recipients of psilocybin treatment in Oregon won't necessarily require a specific diagnosis, but they will go through a pre-screening, a supervised therapy session, and a post-use evaluation.

    In January 2023, Oregon Psilocybin Services (OPS) began accepting license applications. The first licensed service centers opened in the summer of 2023. Learn more about psilocybin services and how to access services.

    (Or. Rev. Stat. Chapter 475A (2024).)

    Oregon Voters Decriminalized Some Hard Drugs in 2020

    In November 2020, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of "street drugs" when voters passed Measure 110. Decriminalization removed the threat of criminal penalties (jail or prison) for possessing a gram or two of drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone, and oxycodone. Instead, offenders were given a Class E violation (similar to a traffic ticket), with a maximum punishment of a $100 fine or completion of a health assessment with an addiction treatment professional.

    Supporters of Ballot Measure 110 wanted the government to treat drug addiction as a disease instead of a crime. They argued that criminalizing the possession of drugs for personal use stigmatizes addiction and prevents people from asking for help. Proponents of decriminalization also said that criminal consequences for drug possession, like incarceration and having a criminal record, worsen rather than deter drug problems.

    The idea was that Measure 110 would expand access to evidence-based treatment (practices supported by scientific research), peer support, housing, and harm reduction services (like needle exchanges). These services were going to be funded through marijuana tax revenue and the savings the state would have captured from no longer having to arrest, incarcerate, and prosecute people for drug possession.

    Measure 110 went into effect in February 2021. In the years since, overdose deaths have skyrocketed in Oregon as the fentanyl crisis has taken hold. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overdose deaths in Oregon rose an estimated 42% from September 2022 to September 2023. Government officials found that few people who were ticketed for hard drugs were opting for the health assessment and accessing treatment. By 2023, a strong majority of voters in Oregon expressed regret over Measure 110, saying they believed it had increased homelessness and made the state less safe.

    Oregon Lawmakers Recriminalize Drugs in 2024

    In March 2024, lawmakers passed a law to recriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs. House Bill 4002 restores criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs like cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, and methamphetamine for personal use. Instead of paying a fine, offenders could face up to six months in jail. But the law still offers drug treatment as an alternative to jail and allows for people convicted of possession to have their records expunged later.

    In April 2024, Oregon Governor Tina Kotek signed the bill into law ending Oregon's decriminalization experiment is over for now. The law will go into effect on September 1, 2024.

    Talk to a Lawyer

    If you have questions about Oregon drug laws, talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer. A lawyer can answer your questions, investigate the facts, and protect your rights.

    If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use or mental health, contact the Oregon Health Authority for local treatment providers. You can also reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). SAMHSA offers 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year support and referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community organizations.

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