A new bill, recently approved by the Oregon state legislature, will reduce criminal penalties for first-time offenders who are found in possession of certain drugs including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and others. Now, less jail time and smaller fines will be imposed on those convicted of possession of these drugs and reclassifies the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor charge. Reducing punishment for small scale drug offenses is called “decriminalization.”
Not only does the bill reduce penalties and reclassify drug possession, it also tries to expand access to drug treatment for first time offenders, or those who have no prior history of possession or felonies associated with drugs. The bill is designed to reduce both mass incarceration in Oregon for minor drug offenses and racial profiling. Drug abuse in the United States, especially of opioids and methamphetamine, is rapidly increasing, and, rather than sending offenders to jail, Oregon is trying to expand the option for alternative solutions.
“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,” stated executive director of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police, Kevin Campbell. Campbell, speaking for his organization, wrote a letter of support for the bill before it was signed which pointed out the long term effects of unnecessary felony convictions: “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.”
Legislators who worked on the bill agree that this step is a necessary move to begin to accept the reality of drug addiction and help those suffering from it. Representative Mitch Greenlick issued a statement to this effect, saying "We've got to treat people, not put them in prison. It would be like putting them in the state penitentiary for having diabetes...This is a chronic brain disorder and it needs to be treated this way."
More and more, as states struggle to deal with the sheer quantity of drug cases which clog up court systems and fill jails and prisons, legislatures are trying to find ways of addressing drug use without imprisoning citizens. According to The Washington Post, the new Oregon “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 addition, heavy penalties for drug crimes contributes to the possibility of racial profiling.
Possession of these drugs could still be considered a misdemeanor under the new Oregon law if the defendant has two prior misdemeanor possession charges or one prior felony conviction, or if the defendant is in possession of a quantity of the drug which implies that it was for sale, he or she can still be charged with a felony.
In most states, possession of heroin, methamphetamine, or cocaine is still considered a felony. For example, in Washington state, simple possession of a small amount of heroin is considered a Class C felony and can be punished by up to five years in jail and $10,000. Therefore even minor charges can have major consequences and should be defended aggressively.