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Oregon bill decriminalizes possession of heroin, cocaine and other drugs

An Oregon bill that passed last week makes possession of small amounts of drugs such as cocaine, shown here, a misdemeanor instead of a felony. (istock photo)

First-time offenders caught with small amounts of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs will face less jail time and smaller fines under a new bill approved by the Oregon legislature that aims to curb mass incarceration.

The Oregon legislature passed a bill late last week that reclassifies possession of several drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor, reducing the punishments and expanding access to drug treatment for people without prior felonies or convictions for drug possession. Oregon lawmakers hope to encourage drug users to seek help rather than filling up the state’s prisons as an epidemic of abuse spreads.

Will decriminalization solve the drug scourge?

“We are tying to move policy towards treatment rather than prison beds,” said state Sen. Jackie Winters (R), co-chair of the Public Safety Committee and a supporter of the bill. “We can’t continue on the path of building more prisons when often the underlying root cause of the crime is substance use.”

The bill also attempts to reduce racial profiling via data collection and analysis to help police departments understand when their policies or procedures result in disparities.

If signed into law, Oregon would be among several states that have reduced punishments for possession of small amounts of some illicit drugs, what some call the “decriminalization” of drug possession. Proponents say the bill marks a significant step toward addressing racial disparities in incarceration that developed as a result of the “war on drugs” approach to crime. The bill reflects a wider trend in which many states struggling to manage the opioid addiction crisis are working to treat drug abuse more as a public health concern than a criminal matter.

In Oregon, several law enforcement agencies worked with lawmakers to craft portions of the bill.

“Too often, individuals with addiction issues find their way to the doorstep of the criminal justice system when they are arrested for possession of a controlled substance,” Kevin Campbell, executive director of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police, wrote in a letter of support for the bill. “Unfortunately, felony convictions in these cases also include unintended and collateral consequences including barriers to housing and employment and a disparate impact on minority communities.”

Despite garnering support from law enforcement agencies and advocacy groups, the majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate voted against the bill, as did some Democrats.

“I fully support the collection of data to monitor racial profiling, but I am opposed to reducing drug classification,” state Rep. Andy Olson (R) wrote in a recent newsletter to his constituents.

State Sen. Betsy Johnson (D), who voted against the bill, argued that downgrading drug possession is misguided and represents a “hug-a-thug policy” in which legislatures are soft on crime in an effort to reform the prison system.

“The proponents of these bills mistakenly believe that drug sentences damage people’s lives, but it’s the drugs that ruin people’s lives,” she said. “I would like to end the odious practice of racial profiling, but I will not be associated with a bill that decriminalizes hard drugs.”

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Studies have shown that Oregon conviction rates disproportionately affect minorities. A 2015 study by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission found that African Americans in Oregon were convicted of felony drug possession at more than double the rate of white offenders; Native Americans were convicted of drug possession at five times the rate of whites.

In Oregon, the incarceration rate for African Americans is 5.6 times that for whites, according to a 2016 report by the Sentencing Project, a prison-reform advocacy group. Black people make up less than 2 percent of Oregon’s population but represent more than 9 percent of the people incarcerated in state prisons as of 2014, the study found.

With the bill’s passage, Aaron Knott, legislative director for Oregon’s Office of the Attorney General, hopes to reverse these trends while also increasing access to drug treatment for all Oregonians. Many Oregon counties already have local drug diversion programs that allow some low-level drug offenders to undergo treatment instead of jail time, but the programs are generally in wealthier counties with more resources, leaving people in low-income communities without options, Knott said.

“So if you crossed the county line with a small amount of heroin, in one county you could be looking at a felony. In another county you could be looking at a misdemeanor with pretty good access to treatment,” Knott said. “We had a feeling this was unjust because the outcome is largely due to the county’s resources.”

The bill also requires police officers to record demographic information — including the age, race and gender — of any person stopped during routine pedestrian and traffic stops. The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission will analyze the demographic data police departments collect and will notify them of any disparities so that the departments can make adjustments to their practices.

In 2015, Oregon became the 31st state to pass a law addressing racial profiling, but it did not provide guidance for dealing with the issue. “The bill was incomplete,” Knott said. “It was saying to police departments, ‘Just don’t profile,’ and ‘Here is a definition of what not to do, and we expect you not to do it.’ ”

Trying to fix a broken criminal justice system

In February, a year-long investigation by InvestigateWest, titled Unequal Justice, revealed that Oregon’s black and Hispanic residents routinely experienced unfair treatment within the criminal justice system. Reporters analyzed more than a decade of court records and found that minority residents were far more likely to be charged for dozens of crimes, from minor infractions such as littering and jaywalking to more serious offenses, such as robbery.

The bill now faces review by Gov. Kate Brown (D), who said she is looking forward to signing it into law.

“While we still have much work ahead, HB 2355 represents an important step towards creating a more equitable justice system to better serve all Oregonians,” Brown said in an emailed statement. “Addressing disparities that too often fall along racial and socioeconomic lines should not be political issues. Here in Oregon, we’re demonstrating that we can make meaningful progress to improve the lives of Oregonians by working together around our shared values.”

State Rep. Ann Lininger (D) said the bill presents a common-sense policy to get people who are struggling with addiction into treatment and a practical solution to reduce the high cost of incarceration.

“Sending people to jail or prison is much more expensive and not an effective way to get at the root cause of some crimes,” she said. “I think it’s why so many people were able to rally around reducing the felony to a misdemeanor. We can now focus on using scarce resources to help people move forward.”