Oregon May Weaken Penalties for Possession of Hard Drugs

The Oregon Legislature passed a pair of bills aimed at reducing incarceration rates, racial profiling and punishment related to drug addiction.

One bill, HB 2355, decriminalizes possession of six hard drugs, including heroin, crystal meth, cocaine and ecstasy, under certain circumstances. The second bill, HB 3078, reduces certain crimes commonly committed by people with substance use disorders to misdemeanors.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum pushed for the bills after she led a 2015 task force that focused on reducing racial profiling by law enforcement. The task force was formed after a study found that African Americans were convicted of felony drug possession crimes at a rate twice as high as the rate of whites. The rate for Native Americans was five times the rate for whites.

“This legislation, intended to implement the 2015 law prohibiting police profiling, is the culmination of a nearly two-year process,” Rosenblum said in a statement after the House passed HB 2355. “Our task force traveled throughout the state listening to Oregonians sharing their experiences with profiling.”

HB 2355 passed the House by a 36-23 vote on July 5, and it passed the Senate by a 20-9 vote on July 6. It only reduces possession penalties for people who do not have prior felonies or more than two prior drug convictions.

On the same days, HB 3078 passed the House by a 33-26 vote and the Senate by an 18-11 vote. The bill decreases certain mandatory minimum sentences for property crimes, and it increases the number of convictions necessary to charge a person with a felony.

“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,” Gov. Kate Brown, D-Ore., told the Washington Post. She is expected to sign both bills into law.

Oregon Law Enforcement Backs New Approaches to Drug Crimes

In November 2016, the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association and the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police issued a joint statement in favor of treatment over incarceration for minor drug crimes. The groups said possession charges for amounts intended for personal use should be misdemeanors instead of felonies. They also said that court-ordered rehab should be a condition of conviction.

“In many counties, first-time drug possession offenders can avoid a felony if they seek and complete treatment,” Sheriff Brian Wolfe and Police Chief Geoff Spalding said in the joint statement. “We must be clear. It is imperative that mandated assessments and treatment services accompany this change in drug crime policy so that individual risks and needs can been identified and addressed.”

The move would standardize the way Oregon counties approach drug crimes. Under the current system, people convicted of a drug possession crime in one county can receive a felony, but people who commit the same crime in another county may avoid a felony if they are offered the option to complete a treatment program.

The law enforcement associations said money that would have been spent on incarceration should be spent on addiction treatment and other interventions for preventing substance use.

They also recognized the disproportionate effect the current laws have on minorities and hoped the new approach would lessen that effect. The ACLU of Oregon, the Oregon Justice Resource Center and the Oregon Department of Justice praised the announcement, according to OregonLive.com.

California Case Study: The Impact of Weaker Drug Penalties

In 2014, California voters passed similar measures by popular vote. Proposition 47, also called The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, reduced simple drug possession and some property crimes to misdemeanors. Advocates of that measure estimated that $200 million would be diverted from prison costs to mental health programs.

A year after the proposition was passed, California’s state prison population dropped by 3.8 percent, and its jail population dropped by 11.7 percent. In 2015, the state estimated that the measure would save $100 million annually, according to the Los Angeles Times.

At that time, California law enforcement officers were complaining that they had no method of keeping repeat offenders off the street. Property crime in Los Angeles County climbed by 8 percent, and auto thefts were up 20 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times.

It’s wasn’t clear whether Proposition 47 or other factors contributed to the increase in property crimes. Experts warned that fluctuations in crime rates usually have multiple causes.

At least 13,500 people were resentenced and released from California prisons or jails as of December 2016. But many had nowhere to go, according to a joint investigation by four California newspapers.

Many people re-entered a cycle of relapse, homelessness, arrest and release. The state was unprepared to support and rehabilitate the thousands of people leaving incarceration.

An estimated $130 million in criminal justice costs were saved, but less than $68 million was deposited into the state’s Proposition 47 fund. About half of the deposited money went to mental health treatment or diversion programs in fiscal year 2016. The other half was tied up in grants that hadn’t been issued as of December 2016.

Oregon’s Legislature may be trying to avoid California’s mistakes. Instead of granting individuals unlimited chances, Oregon’s HB 2355 would still allow people with more than two prior drug convictions to be convicted of felonies. The state also has a robust drug court system, but it’s unclear if support services will be created or expanded to rehabilitate individuals convicted of misdemeanor possession crimes.

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