Oregon Drug Laws: Legalized vs. Decriminalized Drugs

This article explains the difference between legalizing and decriminalizing drugs and summarizes Oregon’s current approach to marijuana, psilocybin, and so-called “street drugs” like cocaine and heroin.

By , Attorney
Updated January 18, 2021

In the United States, drugs are regulated by both state and federal law. Federal law 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. But the 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.

This article explains the difference between legalizing and decriminalizing drugs and summarizes Oregon's current approach to marijuana, psilocybin, and so-called "street drugs" like cocaine and heroin. To learn about the tension between federal and state schemes, see Medical Marijuana and Federal Law.

Legal Drugs in Oregon

Most state and federal drug laws are criminal in nature—possessing even small amounts of drugs carries the threat of jail or prison (by contrast, a civil violation will not involve possible incarceration). Oregon is 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, all marijuana remains illegal.

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 six mature or 12 immature marijuana plants.

(Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 475B.785–475B.949 (2019).)

Recreational Marijuana

In Oregon, it's legal for adults (21 and older) to purchase, possess, and use marijuana for recreation, within certain limits. Limits vary depending on whether users possess marijuana in public or at a private residence.

Possession limits for adults in public include:

  • one ounce of usable marijuana (dried leaves and flowers)
  • one ounce of cannabinoid extracts or concentrates (like butane hash oil, which must be purchased from a licensed marijuana retailer)
  • 16 ounces cannabinoid product in solid form (like edibles)
  • 72 ounces cannabinoid product in liquid form (like tinctures)
  • ten marijuana seeds, and
  • four immature marijuana plants.

Recreational marijuana cannot be used in public, even by those of legal age.

Possession limits for adults on private property include:

  • eight ounces usable marijuana (dried leaves and flowers)
  • one ounce cannabinoid extracts or concentrates (must be purchased from a licensed marijuana retailer)
  • 16 ounces cannabinoid product in solid form
  • 72 ounces cannabinoid product in liquid form
  • ten marijuana seeds, and
  • four marijuana plants.

Recreational users of legal age can purchase seeds, immature marijuana plants, cannabinoid products, and useable marijuana from licensed marijuana retailers, and are allowed four marijuana plants per household.

Marijuana can be gifted to adults age 21 and older, but it is a crime for individuals to sell marijuana for money or other types of consideration like goods or services.

Employers and landlords retain the right to restrict marijuana use.

(Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 475B.005–475B.318 (2019).)

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 directs the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to develop a program over a two-year period to permit 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.

A Psilocybin Advisory Board will establish rules and regulations for providing psilocybin services in Oregon from January 1, 2021 to December 31, 2022. No licenses related to psilocybin services will be accepted or issued until January 2, 2023.

Decriminalized Drugs in Oregon

In November 2020, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of "street drugs" when voters passed Measure 110.

Effective February 1, 2021, possessing the following amounts of drugs for personal use will be 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:

  • less than one gram of heroin
  • less than one gram, or less than five pills, of MDMA
  • less than two grams of methamphetamine
  • less than 40 units of LSD
  • less than 12 grams of psilocybin
  • less than 40 units of methadone
  • less than 40 pills of oxycodone, and
  • less than two grams of cocaine.

Possessing larger quantities of drugs for personal use and commercial drug offenses (like selling or manufacturing) are still crimes punishable by jail or prison. People with either a felony criminal conviction or two or more past drug convictions might also face criminal penalties for possessing any quantity of drugs.

Measure 110 also expands access to evidence-based treatment (practices supported by scientific research), peer support, housing, and harm reduction services (like needle exchanges). These services will not be funded through tax increases—instead, they will be paid for by marijuana tax revenue and the savings the state will capture from no longer having to arrest, incarcerate, and prosecute people for drug possession.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you have questions about Oregon drug laws, talk to an experienced lawyer. Only a lawyer will have the knowledge and experience to review your situation and answer your questions. Depending on your situation, consider seeking out a local lawyer who specializes in criminal law or marijuana-related business law.

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